Northfork a 2003 creation of the Polish Brothers (Michael, writer and director and Mark, writer) is a film that will either move you or bore you to tears.
Simply put, the film is a lachrymose for a town. Northfork was an average upper Midwest (Montana) town that grew up in a valley along a river. To provide power (and the benefit of recreation and real estate) the state decided to build a dam—this would put Northfork several dozen feet below the surface of the dam created lake.
There is nothing simple about the way the story is told. Half of the movie is almost hyper-real the other half of the movie is the magically real of a child’s fever dream. Before I go into the analytical part of the review, which will necessarily give away large sections of the plot, I will try to present the film in a way that will help you decide if you want to watch it. If you require a movie to make sense all of the time; if you do not like a story that leaves more lose ends than it ties up, then you will probably want to avoid it. If movies can be more like candy to you where the story and characters are important, but where the plot can be more of a slice of time rather than a beginning-middle-end paradigm, then 1) you have the potential to like it and 2) the analysis will not be bothersome even if you choose to.
The reason I say that the realistic half is hyper-real is the high contrast film used. This makes all of the images very crisp; given the flat landscape and stark light/shadow play. Three pairs of men are hired to evacuate Northfork. Their motivation is that they will be given 1.5 acres of lakefront property if they evacuate a certain number of the individuals—with just two days to go, only the hardcore residents bother to stay, which means the job of these men will be difficult. Walter (James Woods) is the main evictor. It seems that the men used all come from the general area—Walter has to make the decision of whether to disinter his wife from the Northfork Cemetery for instance. Each of the pairs has one last difficult resident who simply refuses to leave (one has built an arc around his house, one has literally used railroad spikes to nail his feet to his front porch, and one couple who seem more oblivious than defiant). This plotline is funny in an absurd way. The last individuals in a valley about to be the bed of a lake are likely not going to be the sanest of the bunch, so this is only natural.
The child’s fever dream is a complete antithesis of the real one. Here the images are shot through filters to soften all edges. The inhabitants of this world are specters of sorts—though kindly ones. Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) is a British fop dressed in a smoking costume and whose existence seems tied to offering cups of tea. Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah) is an androgyne who appears dressed as a man but whose heart is always just moments away from breaking. Cod (Ben Foster) is a type of near catatonic savant. He carries around a large music box that plays a complex tune. He is also the scribe, he stares out in space and writes the story of the 4 specters. Happy (Anthony Edwards) is an expert in all things that require analysis but has no hands—his prosthetic hands are delicately enough carved, but the fingers are always closed.
Irwin (Duel Farnes), the ill child who has this fever dream, meets the specters. They have apparently been looking for the unknown angel. He tells them he can help them but only if they will take him away. An agreement is struck. He then reveals himself to be the angel. This occurs early on. Whether or not he is an angel remains debatable, which is what the specters do. I will not give away the ending—except to say that nothing of the flood is shown.
The only real problem I had with the film is the hodgepodge of time. The evictors drive black sedans from the 1930’s; the radio plays songs from the fifties (with one as late as 1963). Those set to be evicted seem to be representative of the 1950’s. The orphanage and Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) seem stuck in a time a hundred or more years before: 1850’s. The dam itself looks very much like a design from the 1930’s. I think we are supposed to look at this as an allegory, the only problem is that we aren’t given any indication of this until the very end—and I give nothing away here.
The film is dedicated to Northfork, 1776-1955. So it is both paean and lachrymose for a flooded town. Knowing this makes the two different storylines make sense, but you have to keep what can come close to complete nonsense in your head until then end when the last piece is placed—then you can look back over the movie and see how it all fits.
Cinematography is significant and well done. Despite being a relatively small movie, it is very professionally made This isn’t a movie for everyone, but if you like fables, I think you will enjoy this.
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