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Robert John Burke and Adrienne Shelly in 1989's "The Unbelievable Truth."

The Unbelievable Truth February 14, 2022


Hal Hartley


Adrienne Shelly
Robert John Burke
Christopher Cooke
Julia McNeal
Katherine Mayfield
Gary Sauer
Mark Bailey
David Healy
Matt Malloy
Edie Falco







1 Hr., 30 Mins.


hat everyone in town knows for sure is that he went to prison because he killed two people. Less clear are the circumstances. Some people have heard he murdered his girlfriend and her father in cold blood. Others have heard those people were killed, respectively, in an accident and in self-defense. Additional sordid details are also speculated on — was there an incest element or

something like that involved? — but no one can confidently say anything. 


The murderer in question is Josh (Robert John Burke), who at the beginning of Hal Hartley’s feature debut The Unbelievable Truth (1989) hitches a ride back to the small Long Island town where he was raised after he’s released from prison. Nobody immediately recognizes him when he gets back: with his all-black clothes, most people think he’s a priest visiting town. Prospects are uncertain.

Soon enough, though, Josh gets a mechanic job at the local auto shop. (He worked on cars in prison.) The gruff owner, Vic (Christopher Cooke), is aware of his history and doesn’t want to hire him because of it. But Josh is taken on anyway because Vic’s only other employee (Mark Chandler Bailey) so dramatically doesn’t know what he’s doing, and doesn’t care that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, that he brings his electric guitar to work to pass the time when Vic isn’t around rather than work on the line-up of cars.

Domineering in work and life, Vic will have another reason not to particularly like Josh. At the local bookstore, Josh, reserved but kind, forms a connection with Vic’s high-school-senior daughter, Audry (Adrienne Shelly). Audry is superbright, a recognizable full-of-potential type — an early confirmation is the Harvard acceptance letter that’s just come in the mail — but is so preoccupied with potential nuclear holocaust that to her eye there isn’t any point in going to college or, come to think of it, anything. Maybe she’ll become a carpenter, like Jesus. He was a radical, and she likes radicals. She’s recently quit her after-school job at Burger World – and has lately stopped going to school altogether — and at the start of The Unbelievable Truth dumps her ambitious slick-haired boyfriend of a couple years (Gary Sauer) who can’t believe she’s gotten tired of him after several minutes’ worth of him reminding her once again that he never listens to anything she has to say.

Audry feels she maybe has a kindred spirit in Josh. In addition to a bias for all-black clothes, both have an open moroseness, tend not to trust anybody, hold onto their personal beliefs with unmovable rigidness, and know that despite being uncertain about what they really want to do they feel cloistered by the domestic assimilation unavoidable in their small town. Audry is alarmed at first when she learns of Josh’s reputation. But when her best friend Pearl (Julia McNeal), whose sister and father happened to be the people either directly or indirectly killed by Josh, assures her that she believes people can change, Audry is only drawn in more. Josh is the only person around who seems to take seriously anything she has to say, and vice versa.

This isn’t really a romantic movie, even though the ending’s kiss is half-angling to visually call to mind a classic Hollywood romantic melodrama. The Unbelievable Truth is more a half-winking soap opera about people dissatisfied with their present and who look at their futures with differing levels of anxiety, and how that anxiety only festers in a small town. (Sarcastic title cards denote the passage of time.) Arrested development is a sort of shared coping mechanism. 

The movie is also a sort of slightly inverted update on the “teenage rebellion” subgenre of the 1950s and early ‘60s. Midway through, Audry, literally bribed by her father to go to college and study communications (he refuses to let her move toward literature, since to his mind “read,” as Audry replies, just isn’t a satisfying answer to “what can you do with that”), skips town for New York to pursue full time the modeling she’d agreed to do only temporarily to help pay for school. The Unbelievable Truth feels like Douglas Sirk by way of Jim Jarmusch, drily amusing as it’s trying on soap-opera conventions. It mostly works well — Hartley’s idiosyncrasy is thrillingly fully formed, and we’re confident in his vision — though it can be troublesome for the handful of dramatic scenes meant to have a little more weight to them. 

But The Unbelievable Truth leaves an indelible impression anyway, because its sardonic, maybe-satirical-maybe-not look to small-town life has singularity and perceptiveness and because the performances (Shelly’s and Burke’s in particular) have an originality to them that still can make you feel that bit of the excitement you get meeting a performer for the first time. (The Unbelievable Truth was the debut movie for both those actors.)

The film, shot in just 11 days, was a minor hit upon release. It made nearly $550,000 on a budget of about $75,000, and turned Hartley and Shelly, as noted by the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias, into a cooler counterpart to the more wholesome John Hughes-Molly Ringwald partnership. Hartley and Shelly followed The Unbelievable Truth up immediately with 1990’s Trust; Shelly, who gradually moved away from acting into filmmaking, didn’t work with Hartley again after that save for a minor 1994 theater collaboration that more prominently spotlit his new, and to-be-longer-term, muse Parker Posey. Partially to blame for both their breakthroughs, Hartley and Shelly’s partnership might have been fleeting, but the imaginativeness of The Unbelievable Truth presses on. A-

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