There are some indie writer-directors whose work is so idiosyncratic, it's as if they were raised by wolves. It's not that they don't play by the rules; it's as if they never learned what the rules were in the first place. Watching their movies is like being air-dropped into a foreign country and left to fend for yourself: The camera placements are odd and disorienting; the actors are fed strange, self-aware lines, things normal humans would never say to each other.
Hal Hartley makes movies this way. If you've never heard his name, the chances are you should steer clear of his latest, the geopolitical espionage flick Fay Grim. No amount of aesthetic adventurousness will prepare you for the arrhythmic, off-kilter experience of seeing Parker Posey traipse around Europe in thigh-high boots, grappling with the most unbelievably menacing supermodel killers ever seen on the big screen. If, on the other hand, you once found yourself smitten with Hartley's bittersweet comedies Trust and Henry Fool, with their stilted, staccato dialogue, insecure anti-heroes and vacuum-packed atmosphere, then you might consider his latest to be a sort of return to form.
Though technically a sequel to Henry Fool, the movie could best be described as Hartley's attempt to remake Hitchcock's North by Northwest, as it forgoes the misanthropic lower-middle-class charm of its predecessor in order to weave a breathlessly complicated web of terrorism, bureaucratic corruption and free speech. Hartley's always incorporated elements of mock suspense and intentionally silly intrigue into what are otherwise quirky character studies. But what separates Fay Grim from his previous work (like the charmingly naive thriller Amateur) is that this time, he only seems to be interested in the details of his own labyrinthine plot.
It'd be nice to recommend the film to devotees of Posey, who puts a marvelous spin on Hartley's droll, ironic dialogue. But after two long hours of assassinations, covert operations and double- and triple-crosses, the only thing that sticks with you is the director's skill at keeping multiple balls in the air at once. And if you haven't been following the highs and lows of his career like a hawk, chances are even that won't make an impression.
Opens Friday, May 18 at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].