Nineties indie auteur Hal Hartley lends his onetime pseudonym Ned Rifle to the protagonist of his latest film, which caps the talky trilogy begun by 1997’s “Henry Fool” and followed up by 2006’s “Fay Grim.” But the 18-year-old son of the peripatetic literary gasbag Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the incarcerated “lady terrorist” Fay (Parker Posey) likely isn’t an autobiographical creation.
Determined to kill his father for landing his mother in prison for the rest of her life — though it turns there’s a lot this foster kid doesn’t know about his birth family — Ned (Liam Aiken) is simultaneously as dangerous and as inanimate as his surname suggests.
The film around him boasts the purposefully stilted dialogue and dryer-than-parched humor of its predecessors. Aubrey Plaza thus makes an apt addition to the cast playing Susan, a poetry groupie with a penchant for dingy Lolita-fetish gear. Her obsession with Ned’s Nobel-laureate uncle Simon (James Urbaniak) is revealed to be motivated by traumatic events during her troubled childhood, which includes stints at a psychiatric hospital.
She and Ned search for his father together, each keeping their real reasons for finding the older man a secret from the other, while Fay and Simon piece together Susan’s past, which may make her an even greater threat to Henry than his son.
Susan delivers a convincing speech about the artistic supremacy of “decisive, committed, admittedly obscure work indifferent to mainstream approval and unafraid of moral and aesthetic absolutes” — a scholarly pronouncement (and a tongue-twister of a soliloquy) that might serve as Hartley’s defense of his oeuvre. But the overlapping pursuits — of Henry by Ned and Susan, and of Susan by Ned’s mother and uncle — make this drama the trilogy’s most conventional picture.
It’s only through Ryan’s eloquently peacockish performance as the pathologically vainglorious, but intellectually noble-minded Henry that we give a hoot about any of the proceedings. The mystery is solidly structured, but the answers it gradually yields are silly at best and lazy and offensive at worst. Looking like a lanky-haired theology student, Aiken is underserved by Hartley’s script, which makes Ned’s Christian identity both a joke and the only thing you need to know about him. The most fundamental contradiction of the title character — the irreconcilability of his faith and his murderous intentions — is never even addressed.
Plaza, too, deserves better. She can’t quite pull off Hartley’s academic mumbo-jumbo dialogue, and she’s saddled with a lot more of it than anyone else in the cast. Worse still, Susan is only a pencil-sketch of a character, a device to pit father and son against each other romantically and to redeem Henry’s pedophilia, first mentioned in the trilogy’s inaugural chapter.
Despite the time lapses that divide the three films and the very different places that the Gen X characters end up from the Queens apartment they used to share, there’s little other sense of the passage of time, especially of the new millennium. Nowhere is that frustrating lack starkest as with Susan’s bemusingly old-fashioned preoccupation that she looks like a “slut.” (She’s also called a “tart” and a “floozy” by the other characters, labels that suggest we’ve maybe gone back in time instead of forward.)
With its two leads a pair of stone-faced duds, the chief pleasure of “Ned Rifle” is to catch up with the old gang of Ryan, Urbaniak and Posey. Separated by geographical distance and prison bars, the trio never share a scene together, but the veteran actors touchingly evince the middle-aged characters’ wistful confusion at how in the hell they ended up where they have — and how can they prevent the next generation’s lives from spinning out too.