The American arthouse would be a sad little place without the films of Hal Hartley, who returns to the Berlinale this year with Ned Rifle – part three of his underground trilogy. Henry Fool and Fay Grim (which screened here in 2007) told the tall tales of Ned’s parents. Ned Rifle picks up their son’s story with his release, aged 18, from a preacher’s home in which he’s spent seven years of witness protection necessitated by Fay’s dalliance with terror-espionage. He takes with him two things: a naked selfie of the preacher’s adolescent daughter slipped into a bible and a large dose of Old Testament determination to avenge his mother by killing his father.
After visiting with mother Fay (Parker Posey) in a penitentiary where she’s serving a life sentence and organizing reading clubs “for long books”, Ned proceeds to New York, talks to his poet laureate uncle who’s trying to make it in stand-up blog comedy and picks up Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who’s stalking his uncle – or is it his father? Susan and Ned road-trip west to Seattle and a pharmaceuticals institution where Henry is in hiding and suffering from hallucinations – although whether these are drug-induced or part of Henry’s particular human condition is a mute point.
Hartley’s deadpan style is his trademark, with characters commenting on motivation and moods via monotone philosophy and stiltedly serious considerations of life, death, religion and art. Buoyed by a decisively unnatural style of acting that precludes emotional empathy, he reinforces narratives of randomness with cameras used like windows. As characters pass through the frames, purpose is unveiled as coincidence—with a potentially sheer drop into comedy or tragedy on either side of the outlook.
It’s good to be reminded that American directors can take their country seriously by not taking it seriously, challenging viewers to a road trip of cautionary entertainment. Also cryptic in both tone and content 600 Millas by first-time director Gabriel Ripstein plunges the audience into medias res as he opens with a long tracking shot of a white kid walking through a gun store in Arizona looking to purchase some hardware “for hunting.” There’s another kid, the Mexican Arnulfo (Kristian Ferrer), waiting outside in the car. They’re both nervous as they go about putting together a stash of weapons to be delivered south of the border to the ‘uncle’ running a drug cartel. When law enforcement agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) targets the duo, he’s taken hostage on a very different kind of road trip.
Ostensibly about the cliché-ridden, over-talked subjects of gun-control, cross-border crime and, by implication, immigration laws, 600 Millas is special because it transcends the right-and-wrong approach to these issues. It does so first and foremost via screenplay and camera, the latter reflecting effortlessly on its protagonists’ circumstances in short, jagged and often very violent scenes that give way to a long-centerpiece of ‘bonding’ dialogue in the car between hostage and hostage-taker. Such an insinuating camera is well-placed to create a sense of deep ambivalence and reveals the briefly human face of cross-border crime as both cynical and sympathetic. With a truly startling final scene, Ripstein’s portrayal of violence-as-usual and the environments it thrives in is a remarkable debut.
Ned Rifle screens Feb 6, 12.30 (CinemaxX 7); Feb 11, 19.00 (Zoo Palast 1); Feb 12, 10.00 (CinemaxX 7); Feb 13, 17.00 (Cubix 9).
600 Millas screens Feb 6, 19.00 (Zoo Palast 1); Feb 7, 10.00 (CinemaxX 7); Feb 8, 17.00 (Cubix 9); Feb 13, 22.30 (CinemaxX 7).