Mark and Michael Polish, twin brothers who first came to notice with their strange feature "Twin Falls, Idaho," about conjoined twins and an imminent death, now have written and directed "Northfork" (Michael directs, both write, both produce, and Mark acts in the film). And "Northfork" is also a strange and fascinating film. It's set in the year 1955, when the tiny town of Northfork, Montana, is about to be flooded by the lake created behind an immense new dam.
But the Polishes have no interest in recording a conventional story, nor do they inhabit their film with recognizable characters. "Northfork" is a parable, though what exactly it's a parable about I'm not quite certain. The first image in the film is of bubbles rising to the surface of a lake, followed by a wooden coffin that bobs up behind them. Then we learn that all but one of the bodies buried in the town cemetery have already been removed. Death has come to a place that once lived. The film's story, photographed by M. David Mullen in desaturated colors that leave us with only greys and blues in a landscape that would be lush in spring but is now empty of most life and almost all people, begins with a couple returning a child to the town orphanage. "He's sick, and not getting better. He won't survive the journey," they tell the priest (Nick Nolte) who runs it. "Maybe you should have gotten a dog," he says.
Irwin, the child (Duel Farnes), has four angels who have come to Northfork to find him and test him for authenticity. He is an angel whose own wings and halo have been amputated; we see the scars from the operation. Are the angels real? Certainly they're a strange group: Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah) is a beautiful hermaphrodite; Cod (Ben Foster) is a mute cowboy; Happy (Anthony Edwards) is apparently blind and has wooden hands, but sees, perhaps, through his mutiple-lensed glasses; and Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) is sarcastic and talks a lot to little purpose.
At the same time a group of six Evacuators have been hired by the dam authorities to remove the last of Northfork's inhabitants; they travel in their immaculate black Ford sedans, in pairs identically dressed in black suits, ties and overcoats and hats. And each pair carries a suitcase with angel wings in it, to give to the evacuees. Are they agents of the devil? They've been promised new lakefront property if they remove enough people. But one resident shoots at them; another has built an ark to float away on the new lake, though the only thing he has two of is wives.
The film moves at its own pace, with no obligation to meet conventional standards of plot or dramatic tension. There aren't more than a few dozen lines of dialogue in the whole film. So what is it about? I think it's about being orphaned and abandoned, the town as well as the child - about heaven, or at least a possible kind of heaven - and about love and death. The boss of the Evacuators is a caricature; but one of the pairs, a father and son, Walter and Willis O'Brien (James Woods and Mark Polish) have much that holds them together; it is Willis's mother who is still buried in the cemetery.
Some of the time the film is needlessly lugubrious, and I wish the script had been richer and deeper; it is as though the Polish brothers, having created a breathtaking conceit, were not quite up to the task of fleshing it out. A number of critics, reaching for something to hold onto, have compared it to Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," which is also about angels on earth. But Wenders' film deals with angels making choices; here it is the humans who must make choices. The similarity for me is that both films lose their tension and sag at various times. But in both cases we must honor film artists who are as bold and brave as they. The Polish brothers have made a film that will be watched for many years to come; and after all, how many filmmakers can say that?