USA / Germany, 2006
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 15 November 2007
Source 35mm print
Categories The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival
There are a number of things one could reasonably expect from a new Hal Hartley movie. Hesitant, stilted dialogue. Off-kilter camera angles. Unpredictable narrative twists, characters racked with uncertainty and turmoil, lives overturned by random coincidence. All of these elements are present and correct in Fay Grim. What might come as something of a surprise are the explosions, rooftop chases, CIA agents, terrorist hideouts, double crosses and secret codes, and the sheer sense of exuberant fun.
Because the obvious influences on Fay Grim are not necessarily the ones you might expect. Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming, 70s Euro thrillers, classic noir, romance novels, The Terminator, classic movie parodies, perhaps even The Da Vinci Code, but all processed through Hartley’s own unique, oblique, low-budget-indie aesthetic blender. This is Hot Shots Part Deux directed by Jim Jarmusch or The Bourne Ultimatum on heavy downers, with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. It’s the most entertaining film of Hartley’s career, and one of this year’s most pleasurable cinematic surprises.
The plot of Fay Grim resists easy summary, by being both spectacularly convoluted and essentially irrelevant. Picking up the pieces after the disappearance of her husband Henry Fool some ten years previously, Fay Grim is a woman struggling to cope: with her increasingly wayward teenage son, with her nobel-prize-winning poet brother Simon’s ongoing incarceration, with her own steadily escalating doubts and fears. In Henry’s absence a cult has begun to build around this shadowy figure, casting him as Simon’s mentor, as a worldwide terrorist figure in league with Afghan warlords, and as a former CIA operative and author of the Confessions, an 8-volume work revealing all the gruesome details of his work with the Agency, along with numerous other national security breaches which could prove fatal in the wrong hands.
Pursuing Henry is his nemesis, CIA assassin Fulbright, who recruits Fay to go to Paris and retrieve the Confessions, using her brother as leverage. But while Fay is attempting to track down the books and her husband, and avoiding secret service operatives from the US, France and Israel, along with Arab terrorists and the mysterious Russian agent Bebe Konchalovsky, Simon, along with his publisher Frank, Fay’s son Ned and assorted members of New York’s multifaith community, is attempting to unlock the secrets of a pornographic optical illusion toy which arrived mysteriously in the mail…
Watching Fay Grim, one gets the distinct impression that, after a few years in the indie-DV wilderness, someone tapped Hal Hartley on the shoulder and asked him why he’d never tried his hand at something a little more commercial. This is the result—a sort of warped action thriller, resolutely oddball but at least making a stab towards the heart of the mainstream. The film starts in unspectacular, familiar style with a series of seemingly unrelated and rather everyday conversations- between Fay and her priest, her son, Frank, Simon, and finally Agent Fulbright—which gradually build in strangeness and intensity, peeling away the layers of relative normality. We learn first that Henry is alive, then that he’s dead. We are initially led to believe that he was simply a failed writer and neglectful husband, but as the story unfolds we discover so much more to the character: Henry was Keyser Soze, a shadowy mastermind behind South American assassination attempts and Afghan terror plots, his books of supposedly bad writing actually a coded manual for bringing down the US government. Or are they?
The script is brilliantly witty, and masterfully constructed. This gradual series of revelations is a superbly handled narrative technique, leading the audience in one seemingly safe and predictable direction before casting them off into wild, uncharted territory. The plot is revealed, for the first act, in a series of static, declarative conversations in which no one character trusts another, leading to bizarre misunderstandings and a mounting sense of hysteria. Exteriors are limited, and for a time it seems like this is going to be the film: characters just talking about Henry’s past, about his exploits, about Fulbright’s global pursuit. And then, just as the audience has settled into thinking of Fay Grim as a confined, experimental low budget character comedy, Hartley sends his lead character off to Paris, and then Afghanistan, starts piling on the murder attempts, double crosses and Mexican standoffs, and any sense that we might know what to expect dives literally out the window.
Parker Posey is terrific as Fay, undergoing a Sarah Connor transformation from abandoned wife to international woman of mystery without ever altering her basic personality, which is brittle, impatient and unpredictably emotional. But Fay is nothing if not practical, keeping her mind on the task at hand, driving inexorably towards her goal, to find Henry. Why she is so eager to do this is hard to understand, even for her—she doesn’t even like the man, let alone love him. But she’s still drawn to him, risking everything. Such oddities of character are all over Fay Grim, and we never really get a handle on who anyone is, besides walking, talking chess pieces in Hartley’s grand game. They never talk like people, but like characters in a Hal Hartley movie, occasionally peppered with lines culled from hardboiled crime novels and military doublespeak. But it never seems to matter, because the action onscreen is so relentless, and the dialogue so comic, so sharp that we have no choice but to go along.
Jeff Goldblum threatens to steal the show as Agent Fulbright: part Bogart, part Bond villain and part, well, Jeff Goldblum. His desperate paranoia and need to find the truth drive him to distraction and extreme acts, but there’s something essentially pitiable about the character, too. Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn returns as the helpless, hapless Konchalovsky, dragged into the world of international espionage when all she ever wanted to be was an in-flight stewardess. But it’s James Urbaniak’s performance as Simon Grim that is perhaps the most affecting, squinting like an owl from behind oversized glasses, fearing for his sister’s life while dealing with an hilarious unfolding mystery of his own.
The camerawork is all Hartley—every single shot is framed off-balance, which at first feels unsettling, but by the conclusion seems completely natural. Otherwise, the look of the film is unflashy and surprisingly authentic, from the twisting backstreets of Paris to the bazaars of Istanbul, from a publisher’s office in Manhattan to a terrorist’s warehouse hideout, these could all be sets and locations from any standard globetrotting spy thriller. Which only makes it all feel that much stranger, because this plot could actually work as a straight thriller; it’s ludicrous and insanely knotted, but so are most Ludlum novels. One gets the feeling that Hartley really could make a ‘normal’ action movie, it’s by choice that he takes the road less travelled. And it’s his execution which sets Fay Grim apart, infusing every scene, every line, every performance with playful exuberance, genuine unpredictability, and pure Hartley style.
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