The Unbelievable Truth

For a movie that was filmed in 11 days on a shoestring budget by a first-time director in Long Island, The Unbelievable Truth is an entirely decent piece of work. Actually, it looks good by anybody’s budget.

This movie is part of an inspiring trend among young American independent filmmakers, who aren’t waiting for Hollywood to call. They’re making movies for themselves. Hal Hartley, the writer-director of The Unbelievable Truth, made his film for around $20,000 (small beer by Hollywood standards), but it turned out just fine, and the movie is all his.

The story, and Hartley’s style, embody some drop-dead hip attitudes. We meet a teenager (Adrienne Shelly) preoccupied with anxiety about a coming nuclear war. As she is trying to decide between college and a modeling career (both irrelevant, because the world won’t exist six months from now), a stranger comes into her life.

But he (Robert Burke) is no stranger to the town. He has been in prison for years, rumored to have killed a man. He goes to work in an auto garage owned by the girl’s excitable father (Christopher Cooke). Mysteriously, like a character out of Twin Peaks, she steals the stranger’s wrench and carries it around in her purse.

The film is full of absurdist tangents. A sample exchange of dialogue occurs between the girl and the daughter (Julia McNeal) of the man murdered years before:

“He seems like a nice man.”

“You think so? Even though he killed your father and your sister?”

“People make mistakes.”

For my taste, the film’s unceasing archness becomes monotonous, as though it were overly pleased by its own cleverness. Hartley doesn’t seem to have the sneaky depth of feeling that characterizes the films of Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train), who works in a similar style.

Still, Hartley has made a great-looking movie, he’s put together a few fine running gags, and his eye for actors is excellent. Burke is a hunk in the making, while Shelly and McNair have beautiful, haunting faces. This director will be heard from again.

First published in The Herald, August 3, 1990

This was the first of Hartley’s indie successes. I guess I wish his career had been more consistent, but he’s certainly gone his own way, and I was moved by some of the action in Ned Rifle (2014), the most recent title of his I’ve seen. I don’t know what happened to Julia McNeal, but the cast also included Edie Falco, Matt Malloy, and Kelly Reichardt. I remember interviewing Hartley once at the University Bar & Grill on “The Ave” in Seattle, and he really liked my sunglasses; I had actually spent some money on them, which is unlike me, and I lost them soon after.

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