April 7 2015 04:14 PM

Hal Hartley talks irony, performance and the devil

Aubrey Plaza and Liam Aiken

Hal Hartley makes films about the absurd pervasiveness of contradiction. In his comedies, high art lives alongside low art, chaste and sex are mentioned in the same breath, and peaceful souls ponder desperate acts of violence. "Irony is a great way to highlight contradiction," says Hartley, who spoke to CityBeat over the phone while promoting his new film, Ned Rifle. "I look around and see contradiction everywhere, in what people say, what people do, and what they feel. Those characters that strive not to be contradictory are the heroes and heroines, but they tend to be outside the wider society." 

Ned Rifle represents the final leg in a trilogy about a family of outcasts that Hartley has been exploring for nearly two decades. Henry Fool (1997) is named after the brazen devil-like character played by Thomas Jay Ryan who befriends meek garbageman-turned-poet Simon (James Urbaniak) and becomes infatuated with a young woman named Fay Grim (Parker Posey). His past eventually catches up with him and he's forced to flee the country. In 2006's Fay Grim, a full-blown espionage thriller where every angle is a Dutch tilt, Fay scours Europe tracking down her once lover.

This third film is named after the couple's only son, Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken), who has been put into witness protection with a religious family and Reverend Daniel Gardner (Martin Donovan). Upon his 18th birthday, the devout Ned leaves the safe confines of his spiritual home and takes revenge against his absent father. 

"I wanted to find an improbable situation in the story of Ned. You would not expect this young man to be the son of Henry and Fay," Hartley says. "Ned's reactionary at the beginning, which is what happens in some sense to those people that are traumatized."

Ned meets a mysterious woman named Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who holds her own secret history with Henry and Simon. Every character in Hartley's trilogy is connected by trauma, artistic expression or blood. The power and frustration of this influence doesn't wane with the passing years; it only grows more potent. 

Dialogue is pivotal to Hartley's aesthetic, and he often enlists the same actors to express these long-gestating feelings in verbose and physical ways. "Actors like Martin Donovan represent a classic American male," he says, "a certain idea of masculinity that has nothing to do with machismo. It's masculine, but they are filled with doubt." 

By the end of Ned Rifle, Liam Aiken also embodies the same sensibility. The once-child actor of Road to Perdition now moves in much the same way as the classic Hartley male, broodingly pushing back his long hair while grappling with the contradictions that surround him. Aiken holds his own against Hartley's stable of talented thespians, including the dominant force that is Thomas Jay Ryan. Their characters form an antagonistic relationship that becomes more complicated around redemption, an arc that completes itself in the film's hauntingly sublime final moments. 

Hartley comments on the ending with pride. "By that point, Ned's going to take responsibility, stop the madness and face the music," he says. 

When asked if this was a shift from his previous work, the filmmaker somewhat agrees. "It has a lot to do with age, since you change as you get older. Even in my core material, there's a different tenor, a different tone as you grow older and allow life to happen. I think I've allowed life to impact this process." 

Ned Rifle, which opens Friday, April 10, at the Digital Gym Cinema, represents Hartley at his funniest, most outlandish, thoughtful and absurd. But it also contains a great measure of hope. At the beginning, Ned represents a new generation of young people searching for a level of certainty they have not received from politics and mass culture. By the end, he's found a more powerful form of certitude that's less selfish and comes out the other end all the wiser. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com.


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