Michael and Mark Polish's "Northfork," the third of their films delving into the yearnings of the American heartland, is an enigmatic yet seductive film that presents a challenge to the viewer even as it evokes a mystical feeling of transcendence.
Spiritual odysseys make ambitious screen undertakings, and none more so than "Northfork." But lest the film sound off-puttingly pretentious, it also has in full measure the droll, deadpan humor that characterized the Polish brothers' first feature, "Twin Falls Idaho," in which the identical twin filmmakers played conjoined twins, one of whom wants to present the other with a beautiful hooker as a 25th birthday present, and their second, "Jackpot," in which a wannabe country-western star (Jon Gries) and his manager (Garrett Morris) embark upon a nine-month tour of 43 karaoke lounges in small towns throughout the West.
Neither film, however, prepares us for "Northfork," which is set on a vast Montana plain in 1955, two days before the town of the film's title will be submerged by the opening of an immense dam, a vast Streamline Moderne affair with huge turbines all set to go. (The boldly designed dam, redolent of WPA projects of the '30s, receives a corny ribbon-cutting ceremony that clashes amusingly with the structure's stylistic grandeur.)
Government officials are not amused, however, that 65 Northfork residents have still not left their property, and six men, clad in black and paired into three teams, have been recruited to facilitate the "evacs." The key team consists of Walter O'Brien (James Woods), who also must decide whether to exhume his late wife from the local cemetery and rebury her, and Walter's son Willis (Mark Polish). The Albert Speer-style monumentality of the dam and the grim resolve of the black-clad "evacuators" in their identical black Fords give a decidedly fascistic aura to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, a distraught, guilt-ridden young couple pull up to a derelict, all-but-abandoned orphanage run by Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). Returning a dying boy, Irwin (Duel Farnes), they protest that the child was sick when they adopted him.
Harlan accepts the boy, telling the couple he is an angel, and whether or not this is true is the heart of the matter. The boy starts experiencing visions, which may or may not be real, that an ancient flock of roaming angels is coming to take him home.
The angels, if they exist, occupy a large, plain frame house, split in half and resting on blocks, as if ready to be moved. They are the hard-drinking, cynical Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) and the androgynous Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), who are both dressed in Shakespearean-era costumes. Their leader is Happy (Anthony Edwards), who looks like a late 19th or early 20th century scientist-scholar; his spectacles are equipped with an array of lenses of varying intensities, and his prosthetic arms look more animal than human. The fourth angel, Cod (Ben Foster), is a mute, pale youth clad in a florid cowboy outfit.
They are holed up in the living-dining room of the house, which, given its austere exterior, is surprisingly handsomely decorated. When we first encounter the angels, Happy is studying a 19th century painting of Northfork, which has an angel painted in its corner in keeping with an old legend that angels hover over the town. While we're left to wonder about them, they in turn are eager to ascertain if Irwin really is an angel.
As it happens, the divided house, in which the angels may or not be holed up, is on Walter and Willis' "evacs" list, and the way in which the film's two stories converge constitutes a provocatively bold stroke of imagination on the part of the Polish brothers — they co-write and co-produce, with Michael directing and Mark acting. As hard as it may be to believe, the preceding is but a bare-bones outline of the film, which is full of sly touches of magical realism and which elicits a range of thoughts and emotions.
"Northfork" is an evocative piece of Americana, rich with feelings of loss and longing — a consideration of the eternal cycle of life and death and of the ruthless inevitability of change, of the interplay of cruelty and kindness, wisdom and foolishness, that constitutes human nature. "Northfork" is also a prairie folk tale expressing with hand-hewn charm and tenderness the possibility of an afterlife, or at the very least that there's always a lot more to life than meets the eye.
A thoroughly original accomplishment of a high artistic order, "Northfork" features flawless, spare production design by Ichelle Spitzig and the Polish brothers' father, Del, and cinematographer M. David Mullen's striking images slide effortlessly into Dalí-like Surrealism. Complementing the film's shifting moods is Stuart Matthewman's score; alternately and sometimes simultaneously witty and nostalgic, it incorporates several vintage country and western songs.
In its unique way "Northfork" is magical, requiring performances of utmost concentration and focus, ranging from Woods' implacable yet reflective O'Brien to Nolte's saintly Father Harlan to Hannah's tender yearning to Edwards' intellectual curiosity. Claire Forlani, Peter Coyote and Kyle MacLachlan are among the film's many supporting players.
"Northfork" invites an emotional rather than intellectual response, suggesting that the heart may comprehend what confounds the mind.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes
James Woods ... Walter O'Brien
Nick Nolte ... Father Harlan
Duel Farnes ... Irwin
Daryl Hannah ... Flower Hercules
Anthony Edwards ... Happy
A Paramount Classics release of a Romano/Shane Productions and Departure Entertainment presentation of a Prohibition Pictures production. Director Michael Polish. Writers-producers Mark & Michael Polish. Executive producers Paul F. Mayersohn, James Woods, Anthony Romano, Michael Shane, Janet Jensen, Damon Martin. Cinematographer M. David Mullen. Editor Leo Trombetta. Music Stuart Matthewman. Costumes Danny Glicker. Production designers Ichelle Spitzig and Del Polish. Art director David Storm. Set decorator Erin Smith. Graphic designer Wendy Polish. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
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