Directed by Hal Hartley
Opens April 1 at IFC Center
The blithely fin-de-siècle year of 1997 was fertile ground for Hal Hartley, who sensed we still needed better prophets than post-heroic George Costanza. In Henry Fool, the first film of the trilogy that Ned Rifle satisfyingly concludes, Hartley gave us the eponymous Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a louche bloviator with pretensions to literary greatness, who inspires his friend, doormat garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), to write a bestselling epic poem that wins him the Nobel Prize, while knocking up Simon’s unmoored sister Fay (Parker Posey). Henry remains an unpublished lowlife, and becomes a fugitive. Fay is left with their child, Ned Rifle (Fay’s mother’s surname). By 2006, of course, 9/11 paranoia had taken root. In the baggy, overwrought second film of the trilogy Fay Grim, released that year, the CIA enlists Fay in locating Henry’s notebooks, convinced that he is dead and that his work jeopardizes national security.
Befitting a finale, Ned Rifle is tighter than its predecessors and Hartley’s tone shifts from earnest to knowing. Ned (Liam Aiken) emerges from over a decade in witness protection with a devout Christian family piously chaste—a protest virgin—and determined to kill Henry Fool for ruining his mother’s life. Convicted of terrorism, Fay is hardly miserable in prison, doing yoga, starting a book club, and working on her autobiography with a ghost writer named Susan (Aubrey Plaza, just right), an expert on Simon’s oeuvre who insinuates herself into Ned’s picaresque quest. Simon, sequestered in a New York hotel developing stand-up routines he posts on YouTube, admonishes Ned to recognize Henry’s virtues. “I merely endured the world until my friend Henry taught me to do otherwise,” he says.
Henry finally surfaces at a mental institution near Portland, a grizzled hipster in Wayfarers consuming bourbon and cigars, ever the charming and compulsively frank lout. “I’ve got these mercenary quacks by the cojones like nobody’s business,” he says, later assessing Ned and Susan as “an idiot” and “a floozie” who “both read too much.” Jolting, deadpan wisecracks also punctuate Henry Fool, yet its final scene, in which Simon sacrifices his freedom for his twisted muse Henry, is one of cinema’s most poignant takes on friendship. In Ned Rifle, Henry reprises Simon’s heroic command at the end of Henry Fool, prompting Ned to vault free of fear and homicidal impulses to a moment of existential resolution and grace. After seventeen years, Hartley, inimitably, brings Henry home.