Northfork is the third feature by twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, the two acting as dual screenwriters with Michael directing. In their debut, Twin Falls, Idaho, the brothers also starred as conjoined twins, one of whom was slowly dying, and the film established their singular and oddly unsatisfying cinematic style which consisted of a slow, dreamy pace, deadpan visuals, low-keyed humor and a very dry sentimentality. The movie had its admirers, but it seemed to me to be too willfully quirky; while one could appreciate that the brothers didn’t leaven the story’s sadness with easy irony, their restraint still came across as intrusively self-consciousness. They were, not unreasonably, compared to David Lynch, but whereas Lynch’s pipeline to his subconscious has seemed (as least when he’s not repeating himself) a matter of easy access, the Polish brothers seemed to be trying harder with less compelling results. Or it could just be that their subconsciouses aren’t quite as lively as Lynch’s.
Their second feature, Jackpot, was another somnambulistic shaggy dog story, this time concerning a professional karaoke singer running the bar circuit in search of fame and fortune. As with their debut, the pace and mise-en-scène were so lulling that the symbolism suggested by the oddness of the story didn’t seem worth teasing out. Visually the two movies had some striking moments but the general obscurity was a problem. A little spark, a little wildness might have given some resonance to the brother’s enigmatic intent, adding a little touch of immediacy to the increasingly tedious murmur of their cramped surrealism.
Northfork is both different and more of the same. The main difference is that it’s a somewhat more ambitious tale than their previous two, going beyond the consideration of the plight of the outsider to reflect on matters of progress and the resulting physical and spiritual displacement. It’s set in 1955 in the small town of Northfork, Mont., which is about to be flooded once the construction of a nearby dam is completed. Most of the inhabitants have left, but the remaining diehards are being rousted by an evacuation team consisting of local men who have been promised that once they achieve 24 evacuations they’ll be rewarded with some prime post-flooding lakefront property. The evacuation men all wear the same black hats and black suits and all drive the same outsized black sedans of the period, and it makes for a striking image — but like so many of the film’s striking images, that’s all it is.
The evacuation team works in pairs, and one pair is Walter O’Brien (James Wood) and his son Willis (Mark Polish). Walter goes about his work with grim reluctance, his distaste for his job heightened by the fact that he knows that eventually he must have his late wife’s body disinterred and moved to safer ground. Aside from that, the efforts of the evacuation men are presented as absurdist comedy: One pair bursts in on a copulating couple; another pair is pinned down for hours behind their car as an old coot with a rifle slowly demolishes it; Walter and Willis confronts a religious zealot who lives in a huge ark with his two wives and his prize moose head.
While the evacuation team is doing the nuts and bolts work, the local priest, Father Harlen (Nick Nolte), is tending his diminishing parish, focusing on an orphan boy named Irwin (Duel Farnes), who may or may not be an actual angel. One day Irwin, who’s deathly ill, leaves his sickbed (or discorporates — he seems to be in his sickbed and yet not), then wanders to an ostensibly empty house which turns out to be inhabited by an eccentric group of characters in various types of period garb and with appallingly cute names like Flower, Happy and Cup of Tea. These annoying whimsical creations turn out to be angels and the little orphan may have, at last, found his home. It is to gag.
Somehow, and without much conviction, the evacuation story and the angel story connect, and as confusing as all that may sound, I’ve presented this in a much more straightforward fashion than the movie does. With its disjunctive narrative, its obscure motivations, and its audacious absurdity, the Polish brothers have topped themselves and made something unique — a movie that’s boldly boring.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].