“Are you a priest or something?”
The satire in Hal Hartley‘s debut The Unbelievable Truth is so over-the-top that you almost have to read it as a straight comedy. He’s constantly repeating dialogue through straight-faced actors, breaking up scenes with unnecessary title cards delineating arbitrary time lapses, and makes his characters so over-wrought that we can’t help but find them endearing in their existential crises. It’s about love and capitalist ambition in the youth of America as the self-indulgence of the materialistic 80s transitions into the apathetic 90s with a teenage girl at its center struggling to reconcile her own personal future against a world seemingly at the brink of extinction. Audry (Adrienne Shelly) would rather throw her acceptance to Harvard away and await the apocalypse with wide eyes and no emotional entanglements.
She’s the perfect antithesis to Josh (Robert John Burke): a recently released from prison (for manslaughter) mechanic returning to the one place he’s ever known despite it being the only place that also knows him and what he’s done. He’s a simple man now—doesn’t drink, wears conservative black, is celibate, and seeks work to earn enough money to exist even though every breath taken is done so with the pain of his past. The last thing he wants is a girl to shower affections upon him considering he killed the last one who did before then turning upon her father (the details of which range between truth and gruesome tall tale depending on the sharer). But maybe Audry’s exactly what he needs and vice versa.
The rub is that she’s not yet eighteen and he a hardened visage of mystery her father (Chris Cooke‘s Vic Hugo) would rather stay away. Mom (Katherine Mayfield‘s Liz Hugo) states at one point that Audry was two when the murders occurred, meaning Josh is at least sixteen years older despite reality making Burke just six years Shelly’s senior. It’s an odd line to include for Hartley, working as a subversive element. No one minds the difference, each person instead looking at other reasons their potential relationship shouldn’t happen. Obviously a criminal record would trump an age discrepancy, but you’d assume Audry’s dad would at least mention it as a factor for keeping them apart. And if it’s intentionally meaningless, why make it so large a gap?
This is but one weird detail to a film chock full of them. The Unbelievable Truth plays very similarly to David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet in this way. There’s an off-putting surrealism, but Hartley goes for comedic romance rather than embrace the other’s horror suspense element. Another difference is the sprawling cast surrounding Audry and Josh that assists in spreading Hartley’s message but distracts from this central affair. So much is going on that you begin to wonder if Audry and Josh’s will-they-won’t-they is as important as we first thought. Perhaps their love is merely the MacGuffin to watch them evolve beneath self-enforced ideologies. Their opposites attract chemistry is a byproduct of making them so different; their eventual collision simply a byproduct of life’s uncertain transitions.
These other players span all ages from Audry’s contemporaries to adults and everyone in between. The most memorable proves the most absurdly drawn: Gary Sauer‘s Emmet. He’s initially in love with Audry, but only as far as she fits the mold of “adoring wife” to his prospective “man of business.” A lemming led by false ambition—think the tools in suits from American Psycho—his entire existence changes when she dumps him early on. Suddenly he realizes she was his whole world and his life’s purpose becomes getting into shoving matches with anyone who looks at her with lust (a long list once Audry begins modeling). Emmet retains his mix of being pathetic and loyal, but for different reasons. So enamored through his youthful ignorance, he’s stuck.
The rest are too. Mike (Mark Chandler Bailey) has nowhere to go despite being less than an expert in his field working under Vic’s employ at the auto shop. He loves Pearl (Julia McNeal) and his guitar and the job keeps him close to both. Pearl is also sleepwalking while she waitresses at the local diner despite the town holding such tragic memories for her (her sister and father were the ones Josh killed). The same goes for Vic and Liz: he keeping the status quo by making deals (Hartley’s satire’s only “real” form of currency) against extreme change or risk and she seemingly in a lithium-induced stupor devoid of opinions but always ready to explain how everything anyone doesn’t like was their idea in the first place.
Maybe Audry is correct and they’re all walking single-file to oblivion with half-smiles on their faces making things just good enough to ignore their own ambivalence. Maybe she should become a capitalist like Emmet’s early aspirations so she can make money and find success in a soulless occupation—model products she doesn’t use and quickly turn her wholesome Harvard-bound image into one of promiscuous slut. Maybe Josh can never outrun what he did and instead must languish under the watchful eyes of those who can’t see him as anything but a murderer and those unable to give him the forgiveness he so desperately craves. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. In the end it’s all a matter of perception. Will you create your own or let others do it for you?
Everything culminates in a rather ingenious collision course at Josh’s home. They all find themselves led by greed, jealousy, or love only to see their worst fears—or at least what they believe to be their worst fears instead of taking a pause to reveal what’s really going on. Herein lies the meaning of the title. The “unbelievable truth” isn’t simply learning what actually happened between Josh and Pearl’s family, it’s accepting who each other is devoid of the appearances projected upon them. They’re all so worried about image that they get caught up in visual and verbal fabrication, believing the easy answers because mankind is good at refusing to look deeper. That takes work. The idea is that these characters hopefully discover it’s worth the trouble.
 THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, Adrienne Shelly, Robert Burke, 1989. © Miramax Films.
 THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, Julia Mueller, Adrienne Shelly, 1989. © Miramax Films.
 THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, Adrienne Shelly, 1989. © Miramax Films.