Fay Grim is a fascinating movie, albeit not always for the right reasons. Ostensibly a sequel to 1998’s acclaimed Henry Fool, Fay Grim works more as a cross between the Bourne movies and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. As a result, it can be maddening at times, leaving us to wonder if it’s intended as farce, espionage thriller, social parable, or a combination of all three.
Writer/director Hal Hartley picks up the story ten years after the events of Henry Fool in a deceptively pedestrian way. The characters from the original film return intact, if a bit altered. Henry is presumed to be living in Sweden, Fay (Parker Posey) is trying to raise their now adolescent son Ned (Liam Aiken) in Queens, and her brother, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), is doing time for aiding and abetting Henry’s flight from prosecution on a murder charge. It’s typical suburban mayhem until CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) comes visiting one day, and informs Fay that Henry wasn’t what he appeared to be, and that his unpublishable “Confessions” are actually encoded texts with enough information to destabilize several governments.
From there, things get a bit convoluted. After negotiating Simon’s release from prison, Fay is sent to Paris by the CIA to retrieve the notebooks. Other governments want them, too — the Israelis, the French, the Pakistanis, and though it’s never clear how damaging these notebooks could be in the wrong hands, Fay finds herself at the center of an international web of intrigue. The story often borders on the ridiculous, but manages to keep us poised at the precipice of disbelief.
Shot in high def video, and on a shoestring budget, Fay Grim is in some ways reminiscent of the low-key espionage thrillers of the sixties. Hartley’s use of off-kilter camera angles (in almost every frame) heightens that sense of tension, in counterpoint to the otherwise deadpan pacing of the film. But it’s the inimitable Parker Posey in the title role who ultimately makes the film work. Her portrayal of Fay is a fascinating character study in self-awareness.
When we first meet Fay, she’s a single mom with a moody adolescent son, trying to hold things together, depending on her brother’s royalty checks to make ends meet. Even at that, she confronts potentially adversarial situations with a blasé attitude. Nothing fazes her in that regard — an attitude that serves her well as she gradually evolves into a woman of international sophistication. In fact, the only moment she becomes visibly flustered involves a scene in which her cell phone, set to “vibrate”, rings at an inopportune time.
As much as Fay Grim is a satire on the paranoia of the 21st century political mindset, it’s ultimately about a woman’s journey to discover her potential. Every action Fay takes, especially when she’s following directives, has unforeseen repercussions. It’s only when she takes matters into her own hands that she becomes a fully realized character. Given the somewhat cliffhanger nature of the ending, Fay remains a work in progress.
Hartley has said he envisions Fay Grim as the second part of the Henry Fool trilogy. Let’s hope he doesn’t wait another decade before filming the final installment. For all its faults, Fay Grim remains a testament to the power of the independent film, proving mega-budgets do not necessarily a good film make.