Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy gets a lot of love for making a franchise out of a very non-franchise style of movies. Three movies over almost 20 years, telling the single story of a single relationship. It’s a great achievement and Linklater deserves all the praise he gets for it. But now, as I get to the end of another indie-infused, quirky franchise, made over many years franchise, the Before series seems a little tame and middle of the road. Because with Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley wraps up a franchise that makes Linklater’s movies look like Michael Bay crowd pleasers.
Continuing on from the events of Fay Grim, Fay (Parker Posey) has been convicted of terrorism and imprisoned for life. While her son Ned has spent the last decade or so in witness protection living with a devoutly Christian family. Coming of age, Ned decides he needs to find his father (Thomas Jay Ryan as Henry Fool) and kill him as revenge for ruining Fay’s life. Along the way, he asks his uncle (James Urbaniak as Simon Grim) to help track Henry down.
Things get complicated with the arrival of Susan Walker (Aubrey Plaza). It turns out she has connections to the entire Grim family. A friend to Ned, a scholar who has based her studies on the poetry of Simon, and now officially hired to write Fay’s biography. As the Grims begin to connect the dots, it turns out that she has a link to Henry that predates everything in this series of movies. After only being hinted at and casually referenced a few times in Henry Fool and Fay Grim, Henry’s incarceration years ago for sleeping with a 13 year old girl is finally addressed head on.
After the globetrotting, espionage hijinks of Fay Grim, I liked that Ned Rifle returned to a bit more of the subdued, mundanity of Henry Fool. I enjoyed the craziness of Fay Grim, but it didn’t seem like a sustainable way to tell story of the Grims and the never ending chaos inflicted on them by Henry. As a clear conclusion to the world and stories built in the previous two movies, Ned Rifle needs a more restrained tone as it tackles the bigger, darker issues setup and alluded to in those earlier entries.
When Plaza first appeared on screen, I though she stood out a little in this world, but as I got to know the character, she really grew on me. At first, Susan was just another deadpan, sardonic and sarcastic slacker to add to Plaza’s ever growing list of deadpan, sardonic and sarcastic slacker characters. But as her history with Henry became clear, those affectations took on a real tragic quality.
When I wrote about Fay Grim, I said, “Henry Fool in no way hinted at being the first part of as decades spanning trilogy. But Fay Grim makes me really glad that it was. These two movies are so different in tone, style and execution, that while the second doesn’t really need to be a sequel to the first, I’m really glad it is.” Ned Rifle manages to do even more. It answers questions I never even consciously knew the series had left hanging. It gives these already strong characters more dimensions. And it gives this series the kind of earned, satisfying conclusion that you rarely see in multi movie franchises.