There’s magic in Northfork — both in the movie, by twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, and in the Montana town soon to be drowned by the opening of the dam keeping the baptismal waters at bay. Northfork is a beguiling and bittersweet fantasy set in a netherworld where the living and dead meet on their sojourns to higher ground, be it heaven or just California.
Northfork has become a ghost town. Even its remaining residents have the look of specters in exile, dazed apparitions just waiting for God or the government to tell them which path to take. More than anything else, the film recalls comic-book author Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in which the parallel universes of dream and waking exist in the same place, at the same moment, sometimes in the same person. Northfork‘s characters are like refugees from the paneled page. There’s the Evacuation Committee, six men in black hats and black trench coats who drive shiny, black Fords. There’s haggard Father Hardin, left behind to tend to a dying boy. And there’s a family of garishly costumed angels sent to retrieve one of their left-behind kin.
As the movie opens, it’s 1955, and the remaining townspeople are either holding the line or heading for higher ground. These folks, descendents of the pioneers who settled the land in 1776 or perhaps family to the angels rumored to have once flown in the Northfork sky, are stubborn buggers. Mr. Stalling (Marshall Bell) lives in a home built to resemble an ark and keeps two Mrs. Stallings. Meanwhile, a young couple screw and screw while everyone else skips town. Two members of the state-commissioned Evacuation Committee sent to collect the couple know they’ll be the toughest to move because they drive brand-new Chevrolets in the middle of Ford country.
Also standing their ground, or maybe floating a few inches above it, are four strangers in search of a missing relative. The band of eccentric angels includes a drunken, surly Brit who goes by the name Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); a mute cowboy called Cod (Ben Foster); a nearly blind art appraiser named Happy (Anthony Edwards) who has interchangeable hands made of wood and porcelain; and bewigged androgyne Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah). The freaky four seek refuse to acknowledge that the unknown angel they’re looking for may be a dying child named Irwin (Duel Farnes, a remarkable newcomer), abandoned by his cowardly parents.
Father Harlan (Nick Nolte, wearing his Hulk hair) tries to keep the boy alive. Irwin wants only to escape with the angels he visits with in his fever dreams. Or are they dreams? The Polish brothers suggest otherwise. Evacuation Committee members Willis O’Brien (Mark Polish) and his father, Walter (James Woods), might even be angels. The white feathers in their black caps suggest that they, too, are messengers of God.
It takes awhile to find a way into Northfork. It begins slowly, softly, with dreamlike images like a coffin floating to the surface of the coming flood. (The film looks a little washed-out. The brothers wanted to shoot in black-and-white but ended up coloring everything in various shades of gray, down to the ketchup.) But after a while, we’re so caught up in the ethereal texture of it that we stop worrying about what’s real and what’s imagined. Northfork may be doomed, but the Polish brothers and cinematographer M. David Mullen (who worked with the brothers on their previous features, Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot) make the place feel like heaven on earth.
At a time when children are being force-fed Happy Meals masquerading as movies, here’s the antidote: a fairy tale about a child trapped in a fragile body who is not at all afraid of what lies ahead.