A trilogy of films curated by a maverick writer-director, unfolding in nine-year installments and starring the same actors playing the same characters. No, it’s not Richard Linklater’s celebrated “Before” project, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy living out the long arc of a relationship, but the much less heralded “Henry Fool” trilogy from Hal Hartley. A major indie auteur in the 1990s, Hartley has been nigh invisible the past decade, but he has kept plugging away in his signature style: attractively mordant characters delivering deadpan seriocomic monologues about philosophy and romance.
With “Ned Rifle,” Hartley brings to a close the family saga begun in his biggest hit, “Henry Fool” (1997), and continued in the fairly bewildering “Fay Grim” (2006). The new film is a return to form after that sagging midsection, and the coterie of Hartley admirers still paying attention will find frustrations, rewards, a few darkly intelligent laughs, and an ending that unexpectedly haunts.
Added bonus: more stuff for Aubrey Plaza to do. As the latest recruit to Hartley-land, the “Parks and Recreation” star seems born to the mannerisms, and her way with a fetching glower fits right in. When “Ned Rifle” opens, Fay Grim (Parker Posey) is still serving a life sentence on a framed-up terrorism charge (don’t ask), and her 18-year-old son, Ned (Liam Aiken), has emerged from witness protection with a profound belief in God and a burning anger toward Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), the reprobate father he never met. Bidding farewell to his Reverend foster father (Hartley regular Martin Donovan), Ned packs a Bible and a gun and sets out to make amends.
First, he has to visit his Uncle Simon (James Urbaniak), the onetime garbage man turned prize-winning poet-reclusive literary legend of “Henry Fool.” Fame is wearing on Simon, who has started a stand-up comedy video blog out of boredom; it’s pretty terrible. Pointing his nephew in the direction of Seattle, he also inadvertently throws Ned together with Susan (Plaza), a possibly unhinged graduate student-stalker whose secrets involving the other characters take most of the movie to surface.
For all that, you probably don’t need to have seen the first two movies to get on this one’s offbeat road-movie wavelength. Aiken, who was 7 when “Henry Fool” was made, has aged into a lean, charismatic center of stillness, and you want to see Ned come out all right if only to make good on the actor’s two-decade investment. He and Plaza make an arresting team, the child of God and the damaged sexpot, and it’s fascinating (if a little bizarre) to see the actress push her gloomy persona into more erotic territory. “Ned Rifle” isn’t Plaza’s break-out role — that was “Safety Not Guaranteed” in 2012 — but it does indicate that she’s more than the Millennial Eeyore ingénue she can be typed as.
The movie gets a real lift when Ned and Susan finally track down Henry Fool, who’s being held against his will in a pharmacological mental institution after drug experiments have convinced him he’s Satan. (This qualifies as a normal development in a Hal Hartley movie.) As before, Ryan breaks through the glass wall of the film’s style with energetic cynicism; Henry is a Bukowski bad boy whose acid brilliance shines only in person, never on paper.
Posey is in only a handful of scenes, which is fine: Stiff and unconvincing, she seems to have lost interest in her character. Can you blame her? I’m not sure what Hartley’s larger game plan is, other than to explore the way sins ricochet and deepen through a family over the years. The tension in his movies comes from the collision of hot emotions and cool behavior; the filmmaking is deadpan, too, as though Jim Jarmusch had gotten stranded in Middle America.
But Hartley lacks Jarmusch’s visual invention, not to mention his interest in a world outside his characters. At its worst, “Ned Rifle” is a self-involved movie about self-involved people. When it clicks, though, we’re in a pared-down moral universe that carries unsettling echoes of our own.