The Unbelievable Truth (1989) is one of those débuts which arrived fully formed, with its own distinctive voice. Hal Hartley had recently graduated from the revered SUNY at Purchase where he had already developed his unique style through several shorts. By the time he came to making his first feature, Hartley said he had more experience than he had resources, so it’s no surprise that The Unbelievable Truth is as creatively accomplished as it is; a precocious soap opera with lashings of irony and self-reflexive dialogue, it announced the arrival of a major new voice in independent American cinema.
The film opens with mechanic Josh (Robert John Burke, who went on to a career almost exclusively playing soldiers and police officers), recently released from prison, hitchhiking back home. Permanently dressed in black (an excellent running gag involves him being constantly asked if he’s a priest), he is shunned by many in the community but is hired by Vic (Chris Cooke) to work as a mechanic in his garage. Meanwhile, Vic’s daughter Audry (Adrienne Shelly), a gifted but rebellious 17-year old student drives her father up the wall by dumping her old boyfriend and rejecting an offer from Harvard. Despite exaggerated rumours of the extent of Josh’s crimes, he and Audry begin a relationship.
Confining his story to his hometown of Lindenhurst, Hartley was able to use the unhurried pace and dull conventionality of a small town to exploit the peculiarities and mysteries at the heart of suburbia. The director is clearly fascinated by the wholesomeness of small town America, and finds comic gold in the absurdity of its rituals. The individual tone of Hartley’s Long Island films derives from his inversion of the Frank Capra ideal of a collaborative, close-knit community; the curious banality of ‘ordinary’ citizens is treated as some kind of foreign expression whereas the outsiders – people like Josh and Audry – are reasonable, empathetic individuals
Despite his self-consciously arch dialogue and his insistence on undermining any overt moments of sincerity in his drama with detached eccentricity, Hartley’s early films still resonate because of the honesty of the romance. The Unbelievable Truth uses intimate scenes to tease out the heart from its caustic satire. Cinematographer Michael Spiller and composer Jim Coleman help Hartley create touching moments which often swoon like a melodrama. Hartley would go on to perfect the techniques of The Unbelievable Truth the following year by achieving the magic balance between romance and comedy in Trust (1990), arguably his best film.