Not to stumble into hyperbole, but Hal Hartley’s first feature The Unbelievable Truth is as auspicious a debut as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or David Lynch’s Eraserhead. All three films are extraordinary pieces of cinema, but they’re not simply remarkable first films because they’re so good, but because they assuredly mark the path that the director would follow. Each one is fully formed — the product of a confident vision that promised amazing things to come.
The Unbelievable Truth has been long out-of-print on Region 1 DVD, and with rights-holder Disney, who purchased Miramax’s library, uninterested in doing anything with the film, Hartley himself sub-licensed it and has released a 20th Anniversary Edition through his own Possible Films.
Hartley has never got the attention he deserves as a filmmaker, but if more people would just see The Unbelievable Truth, his reputation would easily exist in the same stratum as someone like Jim Jarmusch. Hartley’s unique voice is one of the best in the world of American independent cinema — back before that movement had been co-opted into oblivion.
Shot in a lightning fast 11 days, The Unbelievable Truth stars the late Adrienne Shelly as Audrey Hugo, a high school senior with a quietly sardonic bent who anticipates all-out nuclear warfare at every turn. Her bombastic father, Vic (Christopher Cooke), wants her to go to college, and is constantly renegotiating deals with her to make it happen, eventually allowing her to pursue fashion modeling as a way to make money for school.
Meanwhile, a mysterious former resident of the town, Josh Hutton (Robert John Burke), returns from prison, and although no one is sure exactly why he was there, rumors abound that he killed a person, maybe two. The heinousness of his crimes grows with each passing telling.
Still, Audrey finds herself attracted to the older man, and with Josh working as a mechanic at her father’s garage, there’s plenty opportunity for their relationship to grow — if the rumors don’t squelch it first.
Hartley’s knack for non-naturalistic verbal wit is on prominent display here, along with his uncanny ability to incorporate the farcical and absurd in a way that completely sneaks up on you. The Unbelievable Truth delivers gently ironic jabs at Reagan-era suburbia, but it’s the affectionate portraits of the film’s characters that really stick with you.
Shelly is absolutely radiant in her film debut. She was a really breathtaking presence on screen, and this film makes her untimely death all the more tragic. Cooke, who has somehow not become a go-to character actor (he has less than a dozen film and TV credits to his name), electrifies nearly every scene he’s in with a strong, yet tender physicality.
Hartley also get great supporting performances out of Edie Falco, in one of her first performances, Gary Sauer as Audrey’s jilted ex-boyfriend and Matt Malloy as an alcoholic who just might offer some inspiration for Josh.
The Unbelievable Truth was a signal that American film had one of its most promising new talents. Every scene of the film pulses with quietly ingenious wit.
This new DVD release features a nearly 20-minute interview segment that was filmed in 2005 with Hartley and Shelly as well as frequent collaborators Martin Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan.
The Unbelievable Truth 20th Anniversary Edition is available for purchase exclusively at www.possiblefilms.com.