Northfork (2003)


(director/writer: Michael Polish; screenwriter: Mark Polish; cinematographer: M. David Mullen; editor: Leo Trombetta; music: Stuart Matthewman; cast: James Woods (Walter O’Brien), Nick Nolte (Father Harlan), Duel Farnes (Irwin), Daryl Hannah (Flower Hercules), Anthony Edwards (Happy), Peter Coyote (Eddie), Ben Foster (Cod), Robin Sachs (Cup of Tea), Marshall Bell (Mr. Stalling), Mark Polish (Willis O’Brien), Graham Beckel (Marvin), Jon Gries (Arnold), Josh Barker (Matt), Kyle MacLachlan(Mr. Hope), Michele Hicks (Mrs. Hope), Claire Forlani (Mrs. Hadfield); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Mark & Michael Polish; Paramount Classics; 2003)
“A movie for surrealists and movie-lovers and admirers of the vanishing Heartland.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A movie for surrealists and movie-lovers and admirers of the vanishing Heartland. Northfork is a bizarrely humorous and a visually entrancing realistic but magical tale from the Polish brothers, the twin sibling filmmakers of Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot. This time they tackle the theme about witnessing death for an unloved angelic child and an innocent small town. It’s 1955 in the fictional Great Plains town of Northfork, Montana, settled by Europeans in the 18th century that lies near the river of the same name. The remote town is being evacuated as a power dam is being built that will flood the area and the state sends in an Evacuation Committee of 6 federal agents to do its bidding, who if they can evict the 65 remaining diehard residents they will receive 1 1/2 acres of prime lakefront land. The agents have a twisted sense of humor as they try to justify the dirty work they are asked to do, as their boss reassures them that their mission is angelic because they are saving lives by taking the residents to higher ground. All look like funeral directors or prototypical FBI agents wearing matching charcoal black overcoats, fedoras, suits, and driving similar shiny spit-polished black Fords. While the ominous agents are busy evacuating the last hardnut cases to take the state’s monetary offer of leaving, a cowardly but guilt-ridden young couple, ironically named Mr. and Mrs. Hope, return their chronically ill dying foster son Irwin (Farnes) to the compassionate Father Harlan (Nolte) because they say all the doctors have left and he’s too weak to travel with them. The grizzled saintly preacher says he will try to forgive them for their weakness. The adolescent Irwin faces death by dreaming that he’s an abandoned angel shot down from his flock when he was 4 and unable to fly because he lost his wings. He comes across an odd family of four misfit travelers, who are apparently flawed angels looking for an unknown angel they lost. They are wearing costumes from the Victorian era and consist of a randy, alcohol drinking, cynical Englishman named Cup of Tea (Sachs); an androgynous, tender, childless soul named Flower Hercules (Hannah), who cares the most for Irwin; a taciturn and stoic cowboy named Cod (Foster); and, a bubbly mute curiosity seeker double-amputee with prosthetic arms named Happy (Edwards), who is using an assortment of heavy lensed glasses to cover-up for his blindness. Irwin urges them to take him along on their journey because he’s convinced that he’s the unknown angel they were looking for. The angels apparently have the same handicaps in the otherworld as they had on earth.

This strange tale is opaque, as the western landscape seems washed of its natural coloring in favor of dominating brownish and greyish shades of Technicolor. It is brilliantly photographed by cinematographer M. David Mullen. Though the story never builds and instead remains steady as a death vigil for town and boy, it was never dull and seemed freshly portrayed in the original style the Polish brothers used to paint their screen with extensive symbolic images. It seemed to be content with letting its visuals do all its talking, as the chatter was used to create humorously odd situations and in a whimsical manner hold out hope for the unknown being possibly a good thing.

The action opens as the preacher gives his sermon in a desolate church with a missing back wall that looks as if it were painted by Norman Rockwell, as he sermonizes that “We are all angels. It is what we do with our wings that separates us.” He then receives back the ill foster child from the young couple and tries to comfort the almost comatose child by securing a bed in the orphanage and anti-biotics for his pain. In a short time the town will be flooded by the new hydroelectric project and will become a ghost town as the 6 agents, who work in pairs, arrive and are given their final orders by their boss to try to get the stragglers moved anyway they think possible. The bureaucratic mantra becomes: “The State understands your difficulty in moving on.” They each run into heavy resistance from their targets. The main team consists of Walter O’Brien (Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish). Their mission is to evacuate a religious nut, Mr. Stalling, whose house is built like Noah’s Ark and he has two of everything–including two wives. Stalling’s won’t budge until he gets a clear sign from God. Walter, who was a resident of Northfork, also is preoccupied with removing his deceased wife’s body from the cemetery before the whole place becomes a lake, or if not removed she will become like the catch of the day.

The preacher, the voice of reason for the filmmakers, says at one point, “It all depends on how you look at it; we’re either half way to heaven or half way to hell.” It’s very much similar in theme to Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire.” Some might not buy into all the whimsical mysticism and might not be able to suspend their disbelief of angels or that the barren American western landscape is mythic and that people can be redeemed and find salvation in another state of mind. Northfork has its soft side that might not pass muster for all tastes, but I was taken in by its uniqueness and uncompromising attempt to show how the young and old, the disenfranchised and the struggling privileged, the Chevy and Ford owner, must cope with loss and leaving the only place they might have a familiarity with. It is true that this line of trajectory could have been further probed in a more insightful way and a more mystical outcome could have been achieved rather than the film being mostly seductive without achieving a conquest. But that begs the point, as the Polish brothers inventively invade the territory separating dreams from reality and carefully blur the line of separation, allowing the viewer to see what they care to. I haven’t come across a film so far this year that was as challenging as Northfork, and if there’s a smudge here and there I can live with it from filmmakers who are not afraid to take risks and shun the formulaic way of filming.

This indie was shot in 24 days in Northern Montana, as the open-sky landscape gives it an epic feel.