Crusty, compassionate Father Harlan (Nick Nolte with long, greasy hair and invisible but perceptible layers of deep emotional scar tissue) neatly sums up the sometimes messy, conflicted feelings and futures of the characters in Mark and Michael Polish’s haunting, deliciously surreal Northfork. “It depends on how you look at it,” he says. “We’re either halfway to heaven or halfway to hell.”
The date is the winter of 1955. The place is Northfork, Mont. In two days, the Great Plains town will be inundated by water from a new hydroelectric project. Most of the citizens have headed for the proverbial higher ground. A few townspeople remain. One man with two wives has built and lives in an ark. One elderly man literally has nailed his shoes to his porch and has armed himself with a shotgun. Some seek a sign of some sort to give them direction, or a miracle that will save them from relocation. Some have resigned themselves to fate.
A team of six men in Tom Landry trench coats and fedoras and identical spit-polished black Fords are assigned to remove these people before they drown. These eerie government agents, who exhibit varying streaks of humanism and fascism, divide into pairs. They visit the stragglers, offer solace and advice, make threats and lug around rectangle guitar cases whose contents either exploit or support the myth that angels once roamed the area.
At the dramatic heart of the story is the plight of the orphaned child Irwin (Duel Farnes). He is too ill to make the journey from Northfork and is cared for by Father Harlan. His fevered dreams conjure up a fantasy about a ragtag band of earthbound angels with very human afterlife problems and flaws, who are on a mission to find the “unknown” member of their group. Irwin tries to convince them that he is that missing member.
The Polish brothers (Mark acts, Michael directs, and they both write and produce) wrap up their American Heartland trilogy with this mind-bending fable. It is their final chapter named after fictional Northwest towns and connected by themes of identity and loss. The three films were shot in a total of 56 days (17 for Twin Falls Idaho, 15 for Jackpot and 24 for Northfork) and cost less than the catering budget for Titanic.
Some very prominent actors in addition to Nolte (who, in this film, walks with a cane at times and knows his way around a syringe kit like a veteran junkie) worked for scale to make this film happen. James Woods and Mark Polish play father and son evacuators who must decide whether to exhume their own wife and mother and take her remains with them. The band of misfit angels includes Daryl Hannah as the androgynous Flower Hercules and Anthony Edwards as the nearly blind, scholarly double-amputee Happy. And Peter Coyote, Claire Forlani and Kyle MacLachlan make brief appearances.
Northfork is about the acceptance of change, the value and price of independence, a sense of community, isolation, death and resurrection, hope, despair, the oft-ignored details of history, and physical vs. metaphysical realities. It melts the gothic resonance of artist Edward Hopper, the deadpan hallucinations of David Lynch and the magical realism of Latin American literature into a single, seamless tale of America’s cannibalism of its own settlements and disruption of both nature and the American Dream in the name of progress.
This surreal vision of a place and people on the cusp of extinction weaves reality and fantasy into a totally enveloping, dreamlike state of mind. The script’s absurdist humor ranges from corny (one comment about a welcome mat immediately comes to mind as a groaner) to the sublime (the initial exchange of salutations by the six-man evacuation committee is a scream). A muted color palette and panoramic vistas nestle the viewer in fairy-tale surroundings. Exhilarating, inventive juxtapositions of images (one scene with Irwin fades as his head is framed by a stove burner grill that doubles as a halo) and odd transitions make the film’s pacing more savory than sedate.
“I am no longer afraid of death, but it is a lesson that has taken me 60 years to learn,” Father Harlan says late in the picture. And the Polish brothers, among all their cinematic mischief and metaphorical cave painting, pause perfectly long enough to allow Father Harlan to drive that point home: “We are all angels. It is what we do with our wings that separates us.”