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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Life + Arts

At SXSW: ‘Ned Rifle’ fires blanks in final chapter of trilogy

Accused of treason, Fay (Parker Posey) is sentenced to a lifetime in prison. Her son, Ned (Liam Aiken), is placed in witness protection for four years until he’s 18. On his birthday, he visits his mom and learns that his Uncle Simon (James Urbaniak) has money saved for him and might know the whereabouts of Ned’s father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), the man whom Ned blames solely for his mother’s imprisonment. Along his journey, Ned is also accompanied by Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who knows more than she leads on.

‘Ned Rifle’ is the third and final chapter to a trilogy of well-written, quirkily acted and bizarrely plotted movies. Knowing nothing about this film going in — aside from knowing Aubrey Plaza holds a gun on the movie poster — I was taken for a loop when the director announced this film would close out the trilogy. I panicked, having not seen the previous two films, but decided to give the film a go anyway. A great film should stand on its own, despite having predecessors or successors, but this wasn’t one of those films.Nedrifleposter

Director Hal Hartley has an interesting eye for shooting a film, and his focused shots are admittedly breathtaking: slow and steady, following the characters and every way they turn their heads, which adds an extra sense for the audience. It’s Hartley’s writing that makes this film worthwhile, as it’s both snappy and intelligent — so intelligent that it almost seems out-of-place for most of these characters. However, it still made for humorous discussions and reactions.

Were it not for some exceptional line delivery, the film’s 10-dollar-words wouldn’t have had half of the impact they did. Uncle Simon and his timid nature make him an already curious fellow, but he becomes even more perplexing as he discusses the deeper meanings of his poetry. Plaza does her best work when her character, Susan, and Henry are waxing-poetic, confusing everyone around them and earning much-deserved stares of befuddlement. Somehow, these three manage to make the most of their exceptional dialogue before returning to their mundane characters.

It’s safe to assume that most people can’t root for uninteresting characters, meaning that most people couldn’t have possibly rooted for anyone in this film. As the titular character, Ned is perhaps the most boring character, but we have to suffer through his entire journey. He’s only got one emotion, and he fails in applying it to other scenarios that require just an ounce of depth. Ned is always brooding and he never does anything exciting with his role. He’s afforded the opportunity to play someone damaged, but all we see is some angsty kid who doesn’t give a damn about anything.

Eighty-five minutes is all the time that this film had to convince the audience that it was something special, but it only succeeded in making time seem to run much slower than it actually was. In that short span of time, a lot is accomplished with the plot, but the story never feels whole. It’s very clear what’s going to happen at the end of the film, and waiting for the grand finale felt like waiting to discover who was voted off American Idol…after the break.

‘Ned Rifle’ certainly underwhelmed me, and while it wasn’t the best way to kick off the festival, it could have been a whole lot worse. Hartley knows how to write tremendous dialogue, but it feels like he needs to spend more time writing his characters and the story. Liam Aiken brings nothing to the table in terms of his character and is often being saved by the golden moments that every other character has. If the previous two films are anything like this one, it may be for the best that this trilogy is finally ending.

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