DIRECTED BY: Michael Polish
PLOT: In 1955, officials try to convince reluctant residents of Northfork, Montana to leave before the town is flooded due to new dam construction; meanwhile, a dying orphan sees a ghostly family and tries to persuade them to adopt him.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Its monster-dog-on-stilts and odd angel quartet put it in the weird wheelhouse, and it is a well-made movie, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. There are better weird movies out there, including at least one movie made by the twin brother team behind Northfork.
COMMENTS: Set in a dusty and doomed, mostly abandoned Montana community that’s about to be buried under a deluge thanks to a public dam-building project, Northfork cultivates a feeling of quiet desperation. An evacuation committee, who dress like undertakers and drive hearse-like black Ford sedans, glide about town trying to convince stragglers to leave town. Meanwhile, in an even less cheery plot, an angelic young orphan lies dying, cared for by the town’s priest, too sick to adopt. His deathbed hallucinations involve visions of a quartet of ghostly beings who may or may not exist outside of the boy’s head. As befits the parched, deathly setting, Northfork is a slow and restrained movie. The performances, especially by Woods as the bureaucrat struggling with the memory of his wife’s death and Nolte as the melancholy orphanage priest, are stoic. Their weathered Western faces are pinched with sadness; their performances are appropriately and affectingly world-weary, but also one-note. Visually, the film is washed out and drained of color—although simultaneously full of sunshine and light, just like the Great Plains during a drought.
This reserved sense of departure is consistent throughout the film, but the one thing that isn’t at all subtle are all the angels. Despite the fact that one of the town’s residents has built his own ark, the celestial symbolism is laid on even thicker than the Great Flood imagery. Wings pop up everywhere, and so do feathers, passing between the dream world and the real world. The orphan is referred to as an angel, and in fact believes himself to be one. Actually, the nods to angels are made so literal that they cease be symbols, and simply become a feature of the plot landscape. The angelism becomes almost kitschy, and works against the restraint shown by the rest of the movie.
While I’ve managed to find a lot to complain about here, Northfork is really a beautiful looking and meditative movie, and one that is capable of pulling out a few weird surprises from time to time (like the wooden dog creature on stilts, and the odd guessing game the evacuators have to play to order a meal at the diner). The setting of the nearly abandoned town, with floodwaters about to descend upon it, is wonderful, but suggests more meaning than the script is capable of delivering. The parallelism between the dying town and the dying boy is thought provoking, but upon consideration the story doesn’t lead us anywhere. Norfolk displays the trappings of spirituality, but it doesn’t have a real spiritual message to convey. The best I can come up with is that the film is pro-immortality, at least in theory.
The scenario was inspired by Northfork Dam, a hydroelectric project instituted during the Depression that buried several small farming communities under a man-made lake. Northfork Lake is in Arkansas rather than Montana.
Michael and Mark Polish are twin brothers; Michael directs (and sometimes acts) while Mark writes and acts. The Metropolitan DVD of Northfork is out of print and fetching a pretty price, so the curious viewer may prefer to try it on instant video instead.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It has that vintage Polish pace, their signature arch pomposity and rhythmless weirdness, only this time the brothers had to go and make a cosmic allegory of American dreams.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Kat Doherty, who recalled that it’s “the boy’s trips back and forth between two realities which make up some of the most haunting parts of the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)