on July 11, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
One of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made, the Polish brothers' “Northfork” nimbly fuses history and fantasy in a '50s-set fairy tale set in the titular Montana mining community. While the rest of the country is profiting from a postwar economic boom, this small town is about to vanish from the face of the earth under the waters of a river to be dammed up imminently. Three pairs of men in trench coats (James Woods and Mark Polish among them) glide across the flat plain, visiting the remaining holdouts who refuse to leave their homesteads. The men's own futures are at stake, for they have been promised 1.5 acres of lakefront property in exchange for the secured evacuation of 65 properties. With 48 hours to go before the waters are reined in, time is running out.

Meanwhile, sickly orphan Irwin (Duel Farnes) lies in a feverish coma under the care of a kindly priest (Nick Nolte). In his restless dreams, Irwin encounters an eccentric family--flamboyant Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); wordless cowboy Cod (Ben Foster); androgynous Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), in a black pixie haircut and ruffled shirt; and Happy (Anthony Edwards), an amputee with wooden hands and multi-lensed spectacles--who are in search of the Unknown Angel. Desperate to go with them when they leave, Irwin brings evidence--feathers, a tranquilizer gun, bodily scars--proving that he is the one for whom they are looking. In the end these two storylines converge in a wholly unexpected way.

Not only is the story intensely moving, but the imagery throughout “Northfork” is lovely. Drawing from a palette of flat grays and browns, helmer Michael Polish and cinematographer David Mullen have produced a look reminiscent of an old, faded, sepia-toned photograph. Particularly poetic are the visions of the surface of a lake, churning from a disturbance below until a casket pops to the surface, and a church with a missing fourth wall, a priest preaching his final Sunday sermon while cows graze serenely in the background. In addition, in the otherworldly characters and a wooden dog-giraffe hybrid creature that beckons to Irwin from across the plain, Michael Polish and his brother Mark, with whom he produced and crafted the script, exhibit wild, evocative imagination.

Yet the film is subtly humorous as well, with the reconstruction of the Biblical ark by a particularly devout polygamist family; debates on the differences between people who drive Fords and people who drive Chevys; and, in a scene of comic brilliance, the protracted guessing game of what the local diner might have on the menu with a waitress whose features are profoundly, shall we say, unique. Here, too, are anachronisms such as a quip about fast food and the throwaway line, delivered just so, “What are you talking about, Willis?” The jokes do take one out of the film for a moment, yet somehow, in the context of this quirky piece, they work.

The final movement in the Polish brothers' trilogy that also includes “Twin Falls Idaho” and “Jackpot,” “Northfork” is a classic for all time. Starring Mark Polish, James Woods, Nick Nolte, Anthony Edwards, Daryl Hannah and Michele Hicks. Directed by Michael Polish. Written and produced by Mark Polish and Michael Polish. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for brief sexuality. Running time: 94 min

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