Hal Hartley may very well be in the running for the title of patron saint of independent cinema. His work just seems to embody the concepts that would go on to shape the foundation of the 90s independent film movement, from a low budget, to natural and realistic cinematography, to non-professional actors, and a smartly written script that focuses on the dialogue over everything else. It’s that last part that I want to single out, as Hartley’s debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth, has probably one of the smartest scripts I’ve come across outside the studio system. Unfortunately for the film, though, Hartley seems to know exactly how smart his script is, and while his decision to focus on the script is a good one, he never really reins the film in in this regard, so the film as a result comes across as very… not pretentious, but smug.
The film, like Hartley’s follow-up feature Trust, features Adrienne Shelly as the female lead, in her debut performance. Here, Shelly plays Audry, a young aloof student wrapped up in her apocalyptic theories of the world’s impending doom. Her opposite this time is Josh, played by Robert Burke, a recent prison inmate who comes back into town to start anew as an auto mechanic, a job he seems expertly attuned for. As befitting a Hartley film, the two meet pretty much by chance, and find themselves attracted to each other, despite the misgivings by themselves and Audry’s family and friends, as well as Pearl, a ghost out of Josh’s past who reemerges as he arrives back in town. The technicals for this one were good, but nothing to make note of, so I’ll skip that and head into the one area that was of particular noteworthiness; the script. The script was well written, but there was a certain air about it, like it knew how smart it was, that came across especially in the actors’ performances. Actors in independent films are rarely all that good, but here, it really seemed like the script flew right over their heads, and in their inability to fully comprehend and digest the dialogue, they resorted to just delivering the lines as directed, without any real feeling put behind them, so they come off as though everyone is just dramatically reading off the script, since they essentially are. The two exceptions to these wooden performances are the two leads, in particular Burke, who knows what he’s doing in his role, and was quite an enjoyable screen presence.
I found myself liking this a little less than Hartley’s subsequent picture. In hindsight, I probably should’ve expected that; this comes across much as Mean Streets did for my knowledge of Scorsese – a much more roughshod version of the films he would eventually make, where the flaws are still showing mostly thanks to the filmmaker’s relative inexperience. Frankly, what struck me the most was how both of Hartley’s first two films made the list, when for all intents and purposes, the two are almost virtually identical in appearance and mood; the only difference being the actual plot. This was definitely a case where one entry would’ve sufficed for this filmmaker, and having two, here especially, just borders on the redundant. Still, given all the other films that left me stymied as to why they made the list, I could’ve done a whole lot worse than this one. I’d say to check out Trust instead of this one, but if you’re like me and end up liking that one enough that you want to check out more of Hartley’s work, you might as well try this one as well.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10