Fay Grim (2006)

Fay Grim is less concerned with the details of contemporary spy-craft and global deception than with broader moral questions.

Fay Grim

Director: Hal Hartley
Cast: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Jay Ryan, Saffron Burrows, D.J. Mendel, Liam Aiken, Megan Gay, Leo Fitzpatrick, Jasmin Tabatabai, Chuck Montgomery, James Urbaniak
Distributor: Magnolia
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2007-05-18 (Limited release)

Warning: Plot spoilers below.

"For my sins," says CIA Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), "I was sent to the middle of nowhere." The screen cuts to "Afghanistan 1989," where his counterterrorist conniving is bound to be thwarted. It's hard to tell throughout FAY GRIM when or if Fulbright is ever telling the truth, but this flashback seems particularly cagey, as he's recalling the moment when the U.S. used a certain self-proclaimed Islamic leader to undermine Russian efforts in the region. Here, the solemn, soon-jilted Arab's name is Jallal Said Khan (Anatole Taubman), but there's no mistaking his resemblance to bin Laden.

Such blatant name (or face) dropping makes Fay Grim seem more topical than it is. On closer look, Hal Hartley's sequel to Henry Fool (1997) is less concerned with the details of contemporary spy-craft and global deception than with broader moral questions. Exploring such themes in multiple conversations and permutations of language, the movie is, in the end, undone by the remarkable face and eloquent silence of Fay (Parker Posey).

Her first appearance here, many years after her estrangement from the conman Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), has her stating the obvious in an aptly cryptic manner: "I'm afraid for my son. I'm afraid that he'll grow up to be like his father." Her meaning, extending over familiar father-son stories as well as generational influences concerning wars on terror and world democratizing projects, is also precise in this instance. Fourteen-year-old Ned (Liam Aiken) is acting out, having brought a "pornographic device" (a hand-cranked viewer he received in the mail), and administrators are concerned. When Ned is expelled for "getting a blowjob" from a couple of classmates, Fay makes a decision. She must get her brother Simon (James Urbaniak), "the incarcerated garbage man-poet of Woodside, Queens," out of prison, so that Ned might have a "father figure or something."

Toward this end, Fay agrees to a couple of proposals by men, both premised on finding a missing volume of Henry's unpublished but apparently massively important "confessions." One proposal, from Simon's publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery), will lead to publication of Henry's (admittedly bad) writing and increased sales of Simon's poetry (on which royalties Fay and Ned depend to live). (Though the writing is, Fay and Angus agree, "bad," he asserts they must press on, if only for the basest of reasons: "We can't be too hard-line about these things, Fay. Anything capable of being sold can be worth publishing.")

The second proposal, from Fulbright, concerns the volume's value in a vast network of lies and historical power-shifting. According to Fulbright and his very sincere partner, young Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick), Henry's work holds some code naming locations of Israeli nuclear missile sites, intel that an array of nations -- China, Germany, Belgium -- are desperate to keep secret. For her part, Fay is concerned only with doing right things, by Henry, Ned, Simon, and, increasingly, the various agents she meets during her adventure.

That adventure turns increasingly intricate, as Fay and Simon. She goes forth on a jet-setting mission, from New York to Paris to Turkey, surveilled and manipulated when she doesn't know it, then learning to use what she does know in order to achieve her own ends. At the same time, Simon, who is released from prison per her agreement with the CIA, joins with Angus, as they pursue the meaning of the "pornographic device," that is, some writing on the sex scene's background wall (the too-cleverness of this metaphor needn't be underlined). Separately, then, Simon and Fay discover that Henry had dealings over the years in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere; indeed, "After Chile," he surfaced "in Nicaragua, amazingly and accidentally as a double agent for the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contras."

Suddenly, Henry is looking like the Forrest Gump of U.S. shenanigans, showing up in assorted hot spots, changing regimes and gesturing toward nation-building. When Fay displays horror on learning the U.S. would overthrow a government, Fulbright sets her straight: "It was inappropriate to the needs of the American economy," he explains. "Hey, don't get all fucking sensitive on me. That coat you're wearing was most likely made by a bunch of seven-year-olds in Kuala Lampur." Her face falls as she clutches the lapel of the very nice coat she's been given to wear during her flight to France. Nobody's our friend, Fay," sighs the perfectly mournful Fulbright. "Times change, alliances shift. Something we were proud of a year a go becomes something we've gotta apologize for in front of the United Fucking Nations. Anyway, things went wrong."

As they still do. Surrounded by all kinds of agents and terrorists pretending to be someone else, but Fay remains steadfastly Fay. This grants the mesmerizing Posey a completely intriguing role at last, while also showing up the ancient, self-serving tenets of spy-business-as-usual. Fay is not so naïve as to believe she'll discover a "truth," but she does want to believe her efforts are not in vain. Meantime, Simon and Angus pursue Fay, deducing -- rightly, of course, -- the CIA is not looking out for her best interests.

Fay finds her own interests. Sympathetic to Henry's recent lover, the luscious, vaporous Bebe Konchalovsky (Elina Löwensohn), she's chastised by sultry spy Juliette (Saffron Burrows). When Fay precisely differentiates between a couch and an ottoman, Juliette sniffs -- in exactly the way Europeans sniff at Americans in the movies -- "You Americans know all about home furnishings, but have no clue what's happening in the world around you." This is surely true of Fay, who insists, "I know I don't want the killing to continue," but Juliette has the answer for that too: "And you think that's generosity of spirit, don't you?" If Fay is not ever going to adopt anything like realpolitik, she is willing to listen and learn, and that makes her unlike all the spies, "soldiers of God," and other schemers who seek to tell her what to do.

The movie generally reinforces the many disparities between worldviews by shadowy flashbacks, plotty dead-ends, and persistently too-clever compositions (close-up, canted angles throughout). Perhaps most telling is the juxtaposition between Fay with Henry, who does at last appear, engaged in his own, simultaneously practical and existential argument, with his erstwhile partner and current jailer Jallal. Henry explains their relationship by denigrating ("It's just the way I am, I gravitate to the lowest common denominator on principle"). In turn, Jallal accuses Henry of sloppiness: now that his book is a hot commodity, Henry is "a trend, a sensation, we saw it on CNN." Once exposed, once "confessed," global governing efforts blow up. Henry, being the American in this relationship, has the last, brutal word, promising that he'll torture Jallal and his family, that he'll provide a "long lifetime of intolerable pain. Sorry," he sniffs, "That's just the kind of guy I am."

It's a grim assessment of how the U.S. tries to run he world, and if it's not specific to the present administration, it appears to have reached a kind of apotheosis. But Fay Grim is not actually cynical. It is instead incisive, funny, even oddly affecting. Its point is plain enough -- international intrigues result from small minds grappling with gigantic problems -- but the revelation, however hackneyed, brings ineffable sadness. And Fay, so seemingly disconnected and despairing at first, becomes the ideal bearer of such bad news. Even as she knows options are few and her own understanding is limited, she finds something like faith. This makes her impossible as Henry's partner. It also makes her affecting beyond words.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.