Directed by Michael Polish. USA. 2003.

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It is the year 1955. In Northfork, Montana a hydroelectric dam is being built that will submerge the town and force the evacuation of the entire population. Many leave voluntarily but some refuse to go and an evacuation team is set up to root out the resisters. With bizarre humor reminiscent of Roy Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor, Northfork, Michael Polish's third film (Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot) is a surreal meditation on identity and loss, on our resistance to letting go. According to Polish, we are "forced to be in transition and that's a hard place to be, that's a gray area we're all very uncomfortable with." 

Beautifully photographed by Mark Polish and cinematographer M. David Mullen in a faded colour palette that is close to black and white, the stunning landscapes of the Great Plains evoke a feeling of nostalgia for a way of life that has been eviscerated by the homogenization of our culture. As the film opens, a coffin bubbles up to the surface on a windswept lake in Northfolk, Montana, which we are told existed from 1776 to 1955. Irwin (Duel Farnes), a young boy, left behind by his parents because of illness, is fighting for his life. He stays with the local priest, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) who is motivated by compassion for the boy and vainly tries to find a family to adopt him before the flood destroys the town. 

An Evacuation Committee is formed of Kafkaesque lookalikes whose job is to evacuate sixty-five households by any means necessary. As a reward, each will receive 1.5 acres of lakefront property. The men are divided into teams of two who look like stories of the men in black from UFO encounters, wearing black trench coats and driving around in black sedans. The camera follows one team more closely than others, that of Walter O'Brien (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish). They go about their task with a cold efficiency and without much pleasure. O'Brien offers residents a pair of angel wings as enticements to leave but the job does not go well. They are attacked with a shotgun and meet a man with two wives who has built an ark and is waiting for a sign from God before he will agree to move out.

They do show some deadpan humour, however, when they exhume the remains of their wife and mother so that her coffin doesn't bob up and down when the water rushes in. In a real or imagined visit, Irwin meets some very unlikely looking angels who have come to Earth to find him. These include: Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), an androgynous parent figure; Cod (Ben Foster), a mute cowboy; Happy (Anthony Edwards) who wears glasses with multiple lenses; and Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), the resident skeptic. Irwin who has received assurances from father Harlan that he is an angel, tries to convince the group that he is the lost member of their flock and shows them the scars on his back where his wings were amputated as evidence.

The film moves between magical scenes of the boy and his angels and the dreary activities of the committees and their prey. Each clings to their last bit of resistance to the inevitable, the boy in his dreams, the townspeople who wait for the flood. Polish seems to be saying that destiny must be fulfilled for cities as well as people, and that the result will be the same whether we fly away on a pair of angel wings or ride in a pickup truck. Like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's impenetrable ode to the old West, Northfork will mean different things to each viewer but it is not easily forgotten. It is a haunting and original film that challenges our complacency and asks us to look at death as a journey and at how we may handle our own transition to the holy other.


Howard Schumann
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