Every Hal Hartley film reviewed

surviving desire

Is that his real name? Not only does he single-handedly write and direct all his films, but the heart is a muscle.

Films reviewed: The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Surviving Desire (pictured above, 1991), Simple Men (1992), Amateur (1994), Flirt (1995), Henry Fool (1997), The Book of Life (1998), No Such Thing (2001), The Girl from Monday (2005), Fay Grim (2006), Meanwhile (2011) and Ned Rifle (2014).

The Unbelievable Truth (1989) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Robert John Burke and Adrienne Shelly.
“You’re in love with that homicidal auto mechanic, aren’t you?”

A mechanic completes a prison sentence for manslaughter charges, then returns to his home town to restart his life. Unfortunately, he becomes the talk of the town when rumours escalate about how many murders he might have committed; he just wants to fix cars.

Hal Hartley’s debut shows early promise with an eye for small frustrations, such as a slob in a shirt with food stains, playing electric guitar solos in his garage during work break. There are many funny lines (“I killed a man – I never thought I’d be able to say that”), although it treads too much between deadpan and bland. Nevertheless, there’s something memorable about a mechanic calmly sitting next to a girl and, in reference to killing her sister and father, “I just wanted to apologise…”

Trust (1990) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan.
“I feel like tearing somebody’s head off.”

In many ways, Hal Hartley’s Trust is a rewrite of The Unbelievable Truth; it’s still about small lives in Long Island, the male and female leads are remarkably similar, and again it tampers with the concept of melodrama – in the first scene, before the opening credits, Adrienne Shelly accidentally kills her father.

“Why have you done this?”
“Done what?”
“Why do you put up with me like this?”
“Someone had to.”
“But why you?”
“I just happened to be here.”

An unusual bond is formed between two losers who agree to marry (“I’ll marry you if you agree that respect, trust and admiration equal love.”), while never sleeping with each other. Martin Donovan plays one of them; he’s demoted from fixing computers to another job fixing televisions, he can’t remember when he was last with a woman, and he carries a hand grenade everywhere just in case.

“I respect and admire you.”
“Is that love?”
“No, that’s respect and admiration.”

Adrienne Shelly is a seventeen-year-old with problems more intricate than most adolescents; she’s kicked out of her house for causing the death of her father and an unexpected pregnancy, of which the latter makes her boyfriend shirk from responsibilities of fatherhood, and she drinks soda for breakfast. They’re not alone in a town where everyone has troubles, except actually they are alone.

“Sometimes I come home hoping the house has been destroyed by fire.”

The dialogue is rhythmic, playing back-and-forth, with grander statements pronounced more stoically for comic effect. It’s certainly a step-up from The Unbelievable Truth, like a collaboration between Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Woody Allen. I couldn’t stop admiring how Hartley managed to take stories too ridiculous for a soap opera, then build them into a great American poem.

Surviving Desire (1991) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Martin Donovan and Mary Ward.
“Listen, pal – you can’t waltz in here, use my toaster and start spouting universal truths without qualification.”

survivng desire dance hal hartleyMartin Donovan is frustrated with his life, and his devotion to Russian literature isn’t helping. He finds a giddy solution when he decides he’s in love with a student with a part-time job at a book shop. He creates a mantra out of writing, “KNOWING IS NOT ENOUGH,” when her reciprocation has more genesis with experimentation than desire.

The dialogue is sharp and hilarious, with Hartley knowing how to use musical interludes to heighten and broaden emotions, stretching out a kiss into a choreographed dance. It’s incredibly smart and poignant; when Donovan orders a pint, the barman tells him: “We always want a tragedy with a happy ending.”

Simple Men (1992) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Robert John Burke, Bill Sage, Karen Sillas and Elina Löwensohn.
“What is it that makes a man dangerous, anyway?”

In 1992, Hal Hartley was on a winning streak, following Trust and Surviving Desire; he doesn’t stray too far from the formula with Simple Men, a knowingly absurd tale of two brothers on the run from the police. Whereas Hartley previously used ridiculous storylines with playful stoicism, Simple Men relies on a few too many far-fetched coincidences. However, that’s not my main issue, which is that characters are less thought out than Hartley’s usual standards, and are too noticeably mouthpieces for his dialogue.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to enjoy, as the typical Hartley mechanics are at play, with sly nods and witty dialogue. There’s even an exhilarating sequence when after a shout of, “I can’t stand the quiet!” a dance party ensues, soundtracked by the Sonic Youth song “Kool Thing”.

Amateur (1994) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Martin Donovan, Isabelle Huppert and Elina Löwensohn.
“She said I should not become a nun because I’m a nymphomaniac.”

Hal Hartley’s step into the thriller genre is, as expected, with a wink; while genuinely exhilarating, it’s still full of quirks like a nymphomaniac who’s never had sex because she’s too choosy. It centres on Martin Donovan as an amnesiac with a past so dreadful no one will tell him, although he knows it has something to do with Sofia, the ‘most notorious porno actress in the world’.

Amaterur manages to be both shocking and hilarious, with humour in the bleakest scenes. The early 90s indie rock movement  bleeds into the action, with My Blood Valentine in the stereo of a pornography store, a cafe playing Pavement, and Donovan passes a venue seeping out the sounds of Yo La Tengo as the live band. There’s also the score; Hartley finds musicality behind the violence, and musicality behind the tragedy.

Flirt (1995) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Bill Sage, Dwight Ewell and Miho Nikaido.
“I was shot by the wife of a man I think I might be in love with.”

Hal Hartley makes a frustrating artistic choice by making a brilliant short film, set in New York, then retelling the exact story twice, in Berlin and Tokyo. Each short involves a central character if having many relationships means they’re lucky, or just bad at keeping anything alive, but the same thing happens three times. At one point, some builders discuss the film, saying Hartley has failed but the failure is interesting, yet all I found interesting was how he felt the need to apologise in advance. Just utterly frustrating.

Henry Fool (1997) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan and Parker Posey.
“Don’t give me that wonderstruck, ‘I’m only a humble garbage man,’ bullshit.”

I believe that Henry Fool is Hal Hartley’s best known feature, and I’m not sure what makes it stand out. It’s a comedy about a garbageman who becomes a famous poet after finding guidance from an ex-cleaner called Henry Fool. There’s insight into how poetry can be written simply by encouraging someone else to write it, and Henry has an even greater talent in being more unreliable than expected; he’s about to have sex with the garbageman’s sister, Fay, but while she’s getting undressed, he wanders into her mother’s bedroom for someone else. There is further juxtaposition of low-brow humour which detracts from bigger themes, such as television discussions over whether the garbageman’s poetry is pornographic or deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or perhaps both.

To Hartley’s credit, he doesn’t take the obvious route with an overblown satire of literature, as he plays it with a degree of realism, yet maintaining plenty of bitterness from everyone involved. That’s not to say there aren’t any laughs, but too often it dwells on jokes, scenes and moods for too long, which is a shame as you shouldn’t put a fence around that, right?

The Book of Life (1998) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Thomas Jay Ryan, Martin Donovan, David Simonds and PJ Harvey.
“As long as people have hopes and dreams, well, then, I’ll have my work to do.”

Hal Hartley finds a smart concept with The Book of Life; Jesus pays a visit to end the world, and Satan’s sipping vodka at the bar. They’re dressed in suits – no costumes – but Jesus begins to doubt his orders, and any soul-searching must begin from within, even though he’s at a bowling alley. Sadly, the philosophical discussions aren’t particularly thoughtful, with or without the gorgeous soundtrack and blurred images, even when Jesus complains: “I won’t judge the living or the dead. I hate these exclusive clubs. Who do these Christians think they are?”

No Such Thing (2001) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke.
“The world’s a dangerous and uncertain place. A few moments of helplessness and satisfaction is the most you can get.”

Naivety turns to stupidity with No Such Thing; it’s possibly a satire of the media, but it’s mostly a dull conversation between a monster and a girl who doesn’t believe in monsters. The monster is a man in a coat with heavy make-up, occasionally breathing fire, who speaks eloquently, albeit using phrases like ‘unsuspecting piece of ass’. The film is best summarised in an early scene when the protagonist is late for a plane; she’s told to rush because they’ve held the plane especially for her, but she doesn’t run – she walks, slowly.

The Girl from Monday (2005) – 3.5

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd and Tatiana Abracos.
Listen, I’m not a political man; I’m just greedy. I want to have sex with you so as to increase my stock. It’s nothing personal; I’m not a pervert.”

Hal Hartley isn’t a name you’d associate with sci-fi, in my opinion – too many “H”s, no hard “Ck” sound. He tries, though. It’s the future where people have barcodes on their wrists and are commodities valued by their sexual veracity. Aside from the storyline, The Girl from Monday never feels like a sci-fi film; the dialogue is a crude form of film-noir, and the cinematography is a disorientating experiment in twisted angles, shifting colours and irritating close-ups. With all this ambition, you’d think Hartley could return to his earlier films and concentrate on human relationships, but there’s an alien involved…

I can’t see blurry sci-fi catching on as a genre. The cinematography is always interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s purposeful for The Girl from Monday’s storyline. It borrows the look of his earlier film The Book of Life, but takes it further into an indulgent self-destruction, like someone’s first ever PowerPoint presentation that uses too many unimpressive, special effects.

Fay Grim (2006) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Jeff Goldblum and Saffrom Burrows.
“An honest man is always in trouble.”

fay grim parker posey hal hartleyEight years after Henry Fool comes Hal Hartley’s sequel, where Henry’s estranged wife is now the focus, as brilliantly played by Parker Posey. Making it a sequel is Hartley’s idea of a joke; Henry’s now dead, and Fay becomes caught up in an espionage mess by the hilarious reveal that he was a spy all along. Additionally, a bold and bizarre decision is made to only use Dutch angles (where the camera is always slanted), and it somehow works way better than you’d imagine.

Its release tremendously mimics post-9/11 paranoia where spies believe innocent families can’t be trusted, and any piece of writing could be an extremist code for destruction. When there’s violence, it’s truly disturbing, especially when juxtaposed with Hartley’s deadpan dialogue – a sign that, despite what critics say, he hasn’t lost it.

Meanwhile (2011) – 4/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: D.J. Mendel, Danielle Meyer, Pallavi Sastry
“I’m still interested in the role of Mary Magdelene. I’d love to play Jesus’s lover. Who wouldn’t?”

meanwhile hal hartleyJust under 60 minutes, Meanwhile still feels dragged out. The one-time TV proposition was rejected by studios – with good reason – and relied upon Kickstarter for its funds. It’s unclear how the story could be expanded into a series, other than the underdevelopment of the only real character, Joe (Mendel).

Hartley’s usual droll dialogue lacks bite, with the sharpness blunted by the digital landscape and seemingly rushed DIY shots. Joe meanders through his day, fitting in actresses, music rehearsals and business deals into his schedule. Occasionally there’ll be a philosophical conversation that halts a minute later.

I recently watched Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, in which he more or less updates Slacker with psychedelic pacing and rotoscoped animation. Waking Life doesn’t come close to Slacker, but it demonstrates a willingness for experimentation that Hartley doesn’t apply to Meanwhile. Joe wanders around a stale city and stale frame, disconnected and without purpose – as a viewer, the limp dialogue makes it harder to sympathise.


Ned Rifle
(2015) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey, James Urbankiak
“I don’t read poetry. I read what really matters.”

ned rifle hal hartley Thomas Jay Ryan Aubrey Plaza henry fool

Despite ponying up for the Kickstarter campaign, it took a while for me to see Ned Rifle upon its availability. That’s where I stand: I’m more invested in a new Hal Hartley film existing, than actually a burning desire to see it.

Completing the Henry Fool trilogy nobody expected, Ned Rifle continues the trajectory of the kid (played by a now grown up Liam Aiken), who’s eager to exact revenge upon his father, Henry (Ryan), following the incarceration of his mother, Fay (Posey). Whereas Fay Grim built upon an underused supporting character in Henry Fool, was anyone particularly eager to discover how messed up the kid from Fay Grim would be?

Ned is an amiable Hartley lead, mostly playing it straight in a circus of deadpan performers, whose spotlight is stolen by Susan – Aubrey Plaza, who nails Hartley’s dialogue with sardonic precision – and her meta energy. As a part-time film critic, Susan has grown up obsessed with Ned’s family (which led to her being an on/off psychiatric patient) and suggests following the narrative is the act of an outsider who doesn’t belong in the mainstream.

Much of Ned Rifle, as bizarre as it sounds, is fan service. And considering it required Kickstarter for funding, that makes sense. Aside from Susan, most of the brief running time is spent reintroducing the cast and repeating familiar beats. In terms of writing, Harley’s style hasn’t shifted too much across the years, sticking firmly to a joke structure of overwritten conversations that underplay traumatising events, but visually it’s the work of a director on a decreasing budget. For fans only – after all, they did pay for it.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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