Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 09 January 2006
Ten minutes into the Polish Brothers’ Northfork we are offered a celebration. The mayor of Northfork, Montana, stands between a scant crowd of his citizens and the town’s new hydroelectric dam and says, “The good people of Northfork will be able to have their cake and eat it too.” A light applause and the sad tune of a small band follow, leading into the cutting of a cake. The scene lasts a mere two minutes and should be a beautiful depiction of progress, of a growing America, but the cake is an unappetizing gray color, and the sky is a bland shade of the same. Alas, the new dam has displaced the people of Northfork—soon, water will flood their homes and businesses, washing away their lives.
The six men assigned to evacuate residents of Northfork are all stone-faced and indifferent, dressed identically in black coats and hats. They’ve been promised prime lake-front property once the sweeping Montana landscape is submerged, but only if they successfully empty every home in Northfork. So, with ledgers in hand, they’re deployed in twos to begin vacating those few adamant souls who remain.
Two of these six men happen to be related. James Woods as Walter O’Brien and co-writer Mark Polish as Willis move through the movie like business partners rather than father and son, putting aside the job at hand only to discuss what to do with Willis’s dead mother, who is buried in the Northfork cemetery and must be removed. Their eyes rarely ever meet.
But the core story of Northfork is Irwin, an orphaned boy who is dying in the care of disheveled Father Harlan. As Harlan struggles to find Irwin a family, the abandoned boy begins escaping into a world of his own making, where a strange, giraffe-like being escorts him to one of Northfork’s many deserted homes. Inside Irwin finds four angels, all assembled subconsciously (we assume) from Irwin’s bedside playthings. There’s Flower Hercules, a loving androgen; Happy, an analytical man with detachable hands; Card, a mute who translates the scripture from music; and Cup of Tea, whose sarcasm is offset nicely by his obliging love of his namesake beverage. Over the course of the film, these angels with strange origins muse over whether or not Irwin is one of them.
In its entirety, Northfork is a secondary reflection on the disappearance of our country in its truest, most untouched form; what some consider progress others see as regression. But the film’s primary beauty lies in its depiction of the line between reality and fantasy. While critics noted an underlying tenderness to how the film approaches death — the little boy slipping deeper into his world of make-believe, the O’Briens’ disquieting disagreements over what to do with “Mom,” the disappearing town as a whole — Michael and Mark Polish seem to hint more at the importance of dreaming. The characters in Northfork are, in a sense, all dreamers; some yearn to keep the life they have while others await the better decades ahead. Irwin dreams of somewhere where he’s accepted and loved, even marveled at, while the O’Brien men dream of having their own home, no matter the cost to others. Even as the Evacuation Team stands at a precipice overlooking the pristine Montana land, you can see the yearning in their eyes, can feel it in their words.
No matter the film’s lessons, Northfork is pleasingly deep. The thick Christian undertones that pervades from scene to scene — a modern-day Noah who’s transformed his home into an ark, a mysterious black box with angel’s wings, the allusions to heaven and hell and everything in-between — allows enough for many firm interpretations. But Northfork, in all its visual and abstract splendor, is better when left unexplained—a metaphorical puzzle that, much like life, is not meant to be solved.