The Unbelievable Truth Review

Audry (Adrienne Shelly) is a high-school senior with an acceptance for Harvard, but feels that a college education is pointless as the world will end in a nuclear holocaust at any moment. Meanwhile, Josh (Robert Burke), on parole from a prison sentence for having murdered his high-school sweetheart and her father, arrives in town, and gets a job as a car mechanic nearby, where he is befriended by Audry.

Hal Hartley's debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth is the second of three of his films reissued on Blu-ray by Artificial Eye. For more about Hartley's films, I refer you back to my review of Amateur. The third Blu-ray will be of Hartley's third feature, Simple Men, due for release in June 2013.

Hartley studied film at the State University of New York, where one of his tutors was Aram Avakian, best known nowadays for as one of the most innovative editors of his time and for his direction of the 1970 cult film End of the Road. After graduating, Hartley was working at an industrial video company when his boss helped him finance his first feature and what was originally intended as a micro-budget 16mm feature was upgraded to 35mm, albeit with not much higher a budget. The Unbelievable Truth was shot in 1988 and showed at festivals the following year, but little attention was paid to it until it played at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.

There were about ten years, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, which were a rich period for American independent filmmakers. There were predecessors, notably John Sayles and before him John Cassavetes, not forgetting David Lynch with Eraserhead, but this purple patch is usually seen as starting with Jim Jarmusch's second feature Stranger Than Paradise winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1984. Also launching their careers in the same decade were Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, whose debut and third features respectively, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Do the Right Thing, went head to head at the same festival in 1989. Robert Redford's Sundance Festival was key to this burgeoning movement, and while notable films continued to be showcased there, by the middle of the 1990s there was a sense that true independents, offering styles and perspectives not served by major-studio movies, were becoming marginalised in favour of small-budgeted films intended as calling cards for those majors. However, the films The Unbelievable Truth was up against in 1990 display the depth of emerging talent at the time: not just Hartley's film, but Reginald Hudlin's House Party. Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off, Norman René's Longtime Companion, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan and Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger...and not forgetting Michael Roemer's The Plot Against Harry, shot in 1969 and making an appearance after twenty years sat on the shelf. Of these filmmakers, some have thrived and others haven't, and one (Norman René) is now dead. Some have worked with the majors, sometimes alternating their films with smaller-budgeted indies on a “one for them, one for me” basis. Others have remained outside the mainstream, often getting their funding outside the USA. Others have fallen by the wayside, including the now virtually forgotten Chameleon Street, directed by Wendell B. Harris Jr, the film that actually won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize that year.

Hartley's debut sets the tone for much of his later work: a comedy with a somewhat literary, off-centre, ironic and stylised tone, with stories of characters trying to make their way in a somewhat puzzling world. Some of it is a little self-conscious, such as occasional captions saying “Meanwhile”, “After a While”, “But” and “A Month Maybe Two Months Later”, and at times playing the soundtrack over itself multiple times or dropping it out entirely to a momentary silence. Hartley and his DP Michael Spiller shoot this in a “neutral” style, the somewhat underdressed sets and locations being no doubt due to the low budget but adding to a minimalist feel. At this stage in his career I would say that Hartley is more of a writer-who-directs than a fully-fledged writer-director, but his filmmaking style, while not always obviously drawing attention to itself, is less artless than it may appear. Note the use of blocks of saturated colour in his and Spiller's compositions.

Most of the leading indie directors of the period were male, and many of their films were noticeably XY-centric. The Unbelievable Truth, however, has a female lead and at the time, and in retrospect, that's quite refreshing. This was Adrienne Shelly's first film, one of only two she made with Hartley (the other being his second feature, Trust), and it remains a key role in both of their work. Audry is a complex character, both sussed and yet vulnerable. Hartley enhances this by casting actors (women as well as men) all noticeably taller than her. (Shelly, actually twenty-two at the time of filming, was 5'2” so not quite as short as she's made to look here. And if you want to nitpick further, there's virtually no resemblance between her and Christopher Cooke and Katherine Mayfield, the actors playing her parents.) While Robert Burke, who went on to play leads in RoboCop 3 and Thinner in the next decade and is acting to this day, is perfectly fine as Josh, being the kind of tall and thin man that Hartley (also tall and thin) often casts as his male lead, it's Shelly's film and she gives it its heart. In retrospect, her tragic death at the age of forty (killed by an intruder in her home) gives a poignancy to this film. Look further down the cast and you will see Edie Falco as a waitress and future director Kelly Reichardt, the film's wardrobe supervisor, making a brief appearance as the wife of “Irate Driver”.

Like those of fellow New-York-based filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Midwestern-born and six years older), Hartley's films are certainly distinctive and definitely an acquired taste. This kind of deadpan, minor-key ironic style either works for you or you may find it much ado about not much, and for some his films are too much of the head and not enough of the heart. But watching The Unbelievable Truth again, twenty-two years after its UK cinema release, I couldn't help but notice that it still seems fresh.


The Unbelievable Truth is released by Artificial Eye on a BD25 disc. It begins with the ad for Curzon Home Cinema common to all this company's recent releases.

The Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up from the intended 1.85:1. The Unbelievable Truth was shot in 35mm, but the low budget does show: this is quite a grainy film in parts, especially in darker-lit scenes. However, skin tones seem accurate, and the occasional use of brighter colours (Audry's lipstick, the very blue sky, a shot of Audry on a yellow lilo in a blue swimming pool) looks as it should. This isn't the transfer to show off your HD setup, but its true to its origins.

Films were still made with mono soundtracks in 1989, although few, and this was one of them. The LPCM 2.0 track is faithful to this. Music, dialogue and sound effects come through the centre channel. This is a very dialogue-driven film and fortunately this is always clear, as Artificial Eye have regrettably not provided hard-of-hearing subtitles for this English-language film.

There is only one extra, but it's a worthwhile one. "The Unbelievable Truth (and its consequences)” (16:52) is a 2010 featurette made for Hartley's self-distributed DVD edition of The Unbelievable Truth. Presented in 4:3 (and standard def) and punctuated by captions (“Years Later”, “Meanwhile” and so on) reminiscent of those in his debut feature, this is more of an overview of Hartley's career up to that point than a piece about The Unbelievable Truth, with clips from all his features up to 2007's Fay Grim and some of his short films. Much of this is made up from interviews conducted in 2005 by actor/director D.J. Mendel with Hartley, Martin Donovan, Thomas Jay Ryan, Robert Burke...and Adrienne Shelly, a year before her death. Her rapport with Hartley is very obvious as they recall the two films they made together. This featurette is dedicated to her memory.

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