AUGUST 21, 2003
The Polish Brothers' 'Northfork' is as Bizarre as it is Brilliant
By Jeremy Mathews
Mark Polish and James Woods set out to evacuate a town before it's flooded for a dam in Michael Polish's "Northfork."  

Paramount Classics
Directed by Michael Polish
Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish
Produced by Hunt Lowry, Mark Polish and Michael Polish
Starring James Woods, Nick Nolte, Claire Forlani, Duel Farnes, Mark Polish, Daryl Hannah, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, John Gries, Robin Sachs, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards, Marshall Bell, Kyle MacLachlan and Michele Hicks.
Rated PG-13
(out of four)

Eight months after seeing 50 films in 10 days at the Sundance Film Festival, “Northfork” is the one film whose many images still linger in my mind. A sermon conducted in a church with only one wall built and the rest open to the sky, a Noah-inspired man’s arc in the middle of a lifeless town, etc.—all these unforgettably beautiful images are part of one of the most poetic and stylistically precise films to come about in recent years.

“Northfork” takes place in a small Montana community in the 1950s that is going to be abandoned and flooded to make way for a dam. It’s the last day before the flood. The graveyard has been dug up and all the residents have left—except a few. Men with black suits and hats are sent in to make sure that everyone has evacuated and to convince the people who haven’t left to leave.

But these men aren’t really sinister, just men who need money. Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish) are the most fascinating pair. Walter’s wife died years ago and she is one of the few corpses who hasn’t been removed yet.

Their story, while surreal, is rooted in reality, until a stunning sort of intersection late in the film. The other plot lines are a bit more hazy as to what is real and what is supernatural. Nick Nolte plays Father Harland, a priest who stays in the town to take care of a sick boy whose adoptive parents brought him back because he was too sick to make the journey. “I gave you an angel,” he says when they claim he gave them a sick child.

Meanwhile, a mystical group that appears to consist of scientists and/or art collectors is in town searching for “the forgotten angel.” The boy, sick in bed in some scenes, is simultaneously playing outside and talking to the group, the kindest member of which is a kind and open-minded woman named Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah).

The strange references to the afterlife (“We’re either halfway to heaven or halfway to hell”) have a certain potency due to the setting of a town on the verge of death. Its downfall is inevitable, but some people are still clinging to it, protecting their homes with ammunition or refusing to remove their buried loved ones.

While the film isn’t really that hard to comprehend, its straightforward and unexplained depiction of the mystical elements turn on some audience’s defense mechanisms and prevent them from enjoying the beautiful film.

The skill of the filmmaking, however, can’t be ignored. This is the third film by Mark and Michael Polish. Both write, Michael directs and Mark acts (sometimes with Michael in a supporting role). The two made the excellent “Twin Falls Idaho” in 1999 and the poorly received “Jackpot” two years ago, but here they have outdone themselves. Michael showcases an amazing eye for beautiful images, creating an amazing look with M. David Mullen’s stark cinematography. Michael’s style isn’t flashy, but precise and observant, letting the images speak for themselves.

It might be one of the strangest films of 2003, but it’s also one of the best.


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