Atmosphere plays a big role in Northfork.
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Photo: High Water: Walter O'Brien (James Woods) conspires to save the townfolk from floods in Northfork, Montana.
Northfork, Mont.: 1955. This sleepy hamlet in Big Sky Country is about to be flooded over to become a Big Muddy. The new electrodynamics dam that has just been completed will unleash its waters and submerge the entire town of Northfork underneath a big lake. Homes, businesses, graveyards--all will become "the catch of the day" for future generations, as descriptively put by one of the characters. During the movie''s opening, we even witness several caskets bobbing to the water''s surface.
A sad gloom hangs over what remains of Northfork and its last remaining inhabitants, whose reluctant departures are not unlike those of rats on a sinking ship. Father Hanlan (Nick Nolte, in long preacher garb) ministers to the last few souls left in town, but by the time the movie begins, his only real charge is the sickly Irwin (Duel Farnes) whose adoptive parents return him to Father Hanlan''s orphanage before riding out of town. "You gave us a sick child," the parents say, to which Hanlan retorts, "I gave you an angel."
Indeed, angels have a lot to do with the story of Northfork, but not in any way you can precisely pin down. The movie is heavy on mood and atmosphere, like an elegy for something lost. As such, the film''s pace moves slowly--too slowly for some viewers'' tastes, but those who reject Northfork are mistaken if they see only a dirge instead of a movie.
Northfork is funny and alive and visually delightful. It belongs to whatever category of films it is that includes such atmospheric beauties as Days of Heaven and Wings of Desire. Several storylines intertwine throughout the movie like repeating melodies. Perhaps as the result of a fever dream, young Irwin sees a clan of roving angels, who''ve taken up residence in Northfork on a quest to find the Unknown Angel. An odd group, they comprise the snarky Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), androgynous Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah), silent Cod (Ben Foster), and the near-blind art appraiser Happy (Anthony Edwards). Both Cup of Tea and Flower dress in Elizabethan-era clothes, Cod in cosmic cowboy-style attire, and Happy wears strange spectacles with many interchangeable lenses and switches between sets of false hands made of wood and porcelain.
Meanwhile, representatives of the town''s Evacuation Committee are sent out in pairs to vacate the last few stubborn townsfolk who refuse to leave. The pair who visit the house of angels is Walter O''Brien (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish). We see much of the story through their eyes. Twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish co-scripted Northfork, and Michael directs while Mark acts. This third feature of theirs belongs of a piece with their other odd but peculiarly affecting films, Jackpot and Twin Falls Idaho. Also keeping things on track is their regular cameraman M. David Mullen, who blanches the color from Northfork and makes it look like a relic from the ''50s.
That leaves us, the viewers, to be the witnesses of what was, and what might have been, before the manmade tide of water washes it all away from the face of the Earth. Northfork is a movie that gets under your skin with its graceful edits and poetic elisions, lovely performances, and faded imagery. It''s a story about the American heartland, and a mature work by the Polish brothers, whose films deftly manage to coax the human universals from their distinctly idiosyncratic tales. The town''s road signs may all be gone, but the marquees should all read, "Turn here for Northfork."
Directed by: Michael Polish
Starring: James Woods, Nick Nolte, Claire Forlani, Duel Farnes, Mark Polish, Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Anthony Edwards, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Kyle MacLachlan
(Rated PG-13, 103 min.)