Color, 1990, 90m.
Directed by Hal Hartley
Starring Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Christopher Cooke, Julia McNeal, Gary Sauer, Edie Falco
Olive Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Artificial Eye (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay, Possible Films (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
One of the many directors who rose to prominence during the independent American film boom from the late '80s into the mid-'90s, Hal Hartley emerged with almost all of his trademark quirks fully intact in his debut film, The Unbelievable Truth. Shot for peanuts on 35mm, it caused a splash at Sundance and introduced audiences to an offbeat voice that remains an acquired taste for some and an addictive tonic for others. If you're willing to go along with the groove, his films are a totally unique and rewarding ride... and this is a fine place to start.
The late Adrienne Shelly started her screen career with a bang at the center of this film as Audry, a disaffected high schooler who only applies to one college (Harvard) and gets accepted. However, she's not really all that interested in further studies since she believes the world is heading for an imminent apocalypse, an attitude that aggravates her conservative working class father with whom she negotiates and renegotiates her educational future in exchange for charity donations. Working with him as a mechanic is Josh (Burke), a self-described celibate convict who's just finished doing time for killing the father of a girl he'd been seeing -- and he may have been responsible for her death, too. Audry dumps her emotional jock boyfriend and begins to orbit around Josh, who tends to instill dramatic reactions from others who find out he's back. Meanwhile others try to have a hand in Audry's future as well, including a desperate photographer who uses pick up lines to reel in potential models for his own romantic and financial benefit, but the girl's mind and heart are clearly her own.
As anyone who has seen this film will attest, this is really Shelly's show all the way. Her arresting appearance and quirky cadence were real attention grabbers at the time and haven't really been duplicated since; it's no wonder Hartley kept her on to star in his next film (and one of his best), Trust. Burke had appeared in a couple of films prior to this one (including Nightmare Weekend), but his solid work here as the black-clad Josh was enough to make him quit his day job doing furniture work and embark on a full-time career on the screen. That led to the title role in Dust Devil, a reunion with Harley on Simple Men and No Such Thing, bizarre stabs at mainstream stardom with RoboCop 3 and Thinner, and lengthy stints on TV shows like Rescue Me and Gossip Girl. The two make a great couple here with a peculiar sort of charisma far outside your usual romantic comedy terrain, and the supporting cast is solid as well with a very early turn by a young Edie Falco (also in Trust) way before TV fame in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie.
Though it earned a small cult following in theaters, The Unbelievable Truth really took off on VHS among the college crowd in the early '90s with the Vidmark tape and its puzzling but eye-catching artwork populating video shelves for years. Anchor Bay provided the first DVD edition in 2001, a quite nice one for the time, and the film has remained more or less in circulation ever since. Hartley released his own 20th anniversary special edition DVD in 2010 through his Possible Films imprint, complete with an improved transfer and a great 17-minute featurette, "The Unbelievable Truth (and its consequences)," which reunites him with Shelly as they talk affectionately about their work together. (Tragically, the actress/director was deceased by the time this was released, and the featurette is dedicated to her.) Also on hand from the shooting of Hartley's Fay Grim are Jeff Goldblum and Parker Posey, while other collaborators like Bill Sage turn up as well.
The 2013 UK Blu-ray from Artificial Eye essentially replicates that package, but the simultaneous American one from Olive Films sweetens the deal with that featurette and an additional Hartley short film, "Opera No. 1." Made in 1994, it's an 8-minute little charmer, a fantasy musical(!) drawing inspiration from Xanadu of all things. Shelly and Posey play a couple of fairy muses on roller blades in a New York loft who become involved in the lives of a young man and woman (James Urbaniak and Patricia Dunnock), trying to get them together but not without a little difficulty. And yep, it's all completely sung, and the music is actually a lot of fun. Well worth watching for Hartley fans who may not have caught it on his personally distributed DVD of short films through his site. As for the HD transfer, it's a welcome upgrade in all departments with some healthy, vivid color schemes throughout; the boost in detail is appreciable in every shot, and there's really no better way of making this film's acquaintance. For the record, this is one of several Hartley titles thankfully released in HD; Simple Men and Amateur are out in the UK as well, while Olive has also released Trust, Flirt, and Meanwhile, all of which come highly recommended.
Reviewed on August 24, 2013.