With Northfork, Mark and Michael Polish have created an ambitious fable encompassing the American Dream and Christian mythologies to explore the broader, universal theme of transition–the constant condition of unending change that is inherent in the human experience and the ultimate transition, death.
In mid-20th century Montana, the town of Northfork has been "dammed/damned"–a dam has been built to generate hydroelectric power and, as a result, Northfork will be inundated by the trapped waters. The politicians promise progress, but progress forces change. The town has been largely evacuated; graves in the cemetery have been dug up to relocate remains to higher ground–even the dead are subject to change.
The story centers on the efforts of a team of men, all dressed identically, all driving black Fords, headed by Walter O’Brien (James Woods), charged with evacuating the handful of holdouts who remain in the town as the flood waters rise. The local priest, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), preaches to the remaining few in his congregation,"We will gain the courage to move to a higher ground," one of many double-edged lines and puns that recur in the screenplay.
Harlan is caring for a dying orphan, Irwin (Duel Farnes), who fantasizes that he is an angel trying to convince a group of angels that he is one of them. That highly eccentric group consists of Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), an effete and cynical Englishman; Happy (Anthony Edwards), handless and near-blind, always wearing an oculist’s multi-lensed instrumentand seeking the facts; Cod (Ben Foster), a mute cowboy; and Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah), androgynous, childless, and most motivated to accept Irwin.
Among the holdouts are the Youngs, a couple in the heat of passion; Mr. Stalling, who has built an ark and supplied himself with two wives; and Jigger, who sits on his porch firing his rifle at the evacuators. Stalling tells O’Brien, "We’re waiting for a sign from God." But the larger question is posed as to whether such signs would be recognized if and when they occur.
On a tiny budget (under $2 million) and in only 24 days of shooting, the Polish brothers have achieved a stunningly handsome look for their film, using a washed out palette, the Montana landscape, a handful of stark prairie buildings, and their own fecund imaginations. A continuing flow of imagery (coffins, turbines, angel wings, feathers, buffalo) is seamlessly knit into alternately grounded and surrealistic episodes, carried dramatically by the knowledge of the coming flood. Canny use of sound (bubbling water, a whistling teakettle, footsteps in a tunnel, explosions) and an elegant score by Stuart Matthewman enhance both the drama and the eerie atmosphere.
Northfork, unlike the Polish brothers superb and underseen first film, Twin Falls, Idaho, does not build fully realized characterizations that engage the emotions. In that, it is a less effective film. On the other hand, it offers exquisite artistry in its visuals and relies on the complexity of its ideas and incidents to engage the mind in an intellectual challenge that sustains interest throughout. Like poetry, it is condensed, rich in suggestions, ambiguities, and deliberately unanswered questions.