Northfork (2003) ***
Directed by Michael Polish. Written & produced by Mark and Michael Polish. Photography, M. David Mullen. Editing, Leo Trombetta. Production design, Ichelle Spitzig & Del Polish. Music. Stuart Matthewman. Cast: Peter Coyote (Eddie), Anthony Edwards (Happy), Duel Farnes (Irwin), Daryl Hannah (Flower Hercules), Nick Nolte (Father Harlan), Mark Polish (Willis O'Brien), James Woods (Walter O'Brien), Ben Foster (Cod), Robin Sachs (Cup of Tea) et al. A Paramount release. 94 minutes. PG-13.
Caveat emptor. The three-star rating above is essentially an acknowledgement of the movie's techniques and originality-but the many reviews of this work range all over the scale. As for the public, the operative word is "weird."
The Polish Brothers are not Poles but Californians, identical twins born some 32 years ago. Their films are the Heartland trilogy: "Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot," and "Northfork," written by both, directed by Michael, and including Mark Polish in the cast.
Now to "Northfork." Somehow, it is like a revival of surrealism. I kept thinking -- indirectly --of the respectable number of movies with angels, but mostly of writer, artist, filmmaker Jean Cocteau's special brand of "angelism."
The latter is beautifully summed up by Cocteau. A boy was born to his relatives. Everybody was excited except for Cocteau's young niece who seemed totally indifferent. He asked the little girl: "You know, an angel has brought you a little brother. Aren't you curious? Don't you want to see him?" "No" replied the child. "But I'd like to see the angel."
Northfork is a minuscule town in the Montana plains. In 1955, as a power-producing dam is about to flood the area, twosomes of men in black are charged with persuading the remaining Northforkites to relocate to higher ground. A cinephile's memory may connect with Elia Kazan's "Wild River" (1960) in which, in the 1930s, a dam on the Tennessee River will poses among other problems that of relocation. Shot in Alabama, that was a fine, realistic movie with Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet and other talented actors.
In "Northfork" you might expect something like this, but no. What we get is a fantasy, a mood piece of astonishing sights and sites, shot in strange angles, with peculiar, oversaturated, bleached out, arresting colors that are on the fringes of black-and-white.
There are several sets of centers-of-interest, connected by what Latin-American literature calls "magic realism." The locals (often most eccentric,) the two-men teams of "relocators," a sick young boy who thinks he may be a de-winged angel, a group of extremely peculiar humans (?) who may or may not exist, be angels, and so on.
Filmic (and other) references and allusions abound, a la Jean-Luc Godard. I seem to remember that we hear, at some point, the melody of "If I had the Wings of an Angel," which may or may not double as an homage to Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" where that melody was briefly heard. A more obvious tip of the hat is to Willis O'Brien (1886-1962,) the special effects wizard ("The Lost World," "The Last Days of Pompei," " King Kong," "Mighty Joe Young" etc.) That's this movie's name of relocator Mark Polish who is teamed up with his father Walter O'Brien (played by James Woods).
Ye who enter here abandon all logic. The movie may be often incoherent and arbitrary, heavy with symbols (including biblical ones) and ellipses, but this, in part or in whole, may be counterbalanced by the surreal sights, sounds, events and characters. To what extent the film's authors were influenced by the Theater of the Absurd is something that a repeat viewing may clear up.
The sets and in general, the visuals, are remarkable, the "story" often incoherent, the tempo will be sluggish for most viewers but also a good counterweight for audiences sick and tired of the excesses of action movies. Inventions do about however, for better or worse, at every step. Note, among much else, the tiny church of clergyman Nick Nolte (yes!) whose back wall has disappeared and opens on a striking view of grazing cattle - like a strange painting or even an installation. It all drips with atmosphere, in fact it is submerged in it.
My own major puzzle is: was this movie also conceived as a specific denunciation of bad capitalism? I have no clue. Yet, last February, television's admirable "60 Minutes" presented a scathing story of the once-thriving Montana Power Company which, for years produced low rates, high service, many jobs and fine stock dividends. Then greed set into the corporation, a switch to telecommunications, and a disaster for all concerned except for some financiers (The TV program was recently rebroadcast and updated).