- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

“Northfork” is the sort of odd one that may prove satisfying only to connoisseurs of odd ones. The final chapter in a cinematic trilogy that probably few moviegoers have followed, the film is an extremely self-conscious and deadpan American gothic phantasmagoria about states of limbo and departure in a Montana town of 1955 called Northfork, which is destined to become a ghost town after a hydroelectric installation buries the city limits under a dam reservoir.

One of the characters is an orphaned little boy named Irwin, possibly a lost angel, sheltered during most of the story by a crackpot priest named Father Harlan. (When you hear Nick Nolte has the role, the term “crackpot” becomes superfluous.) In a nice illustrative touch, Father Harlan’s church seems to be literally open-ended at the front. The wall behind the pulpit remains unbuilt for unexplained reasons, probably having to do with the vicissitudes of contracting and the sheer futility of completing ordinary building projects in doomed Northfork. Anyway, when Father Harlan mounts the pulpit, an impressive panorama of pasture and mountains spreads out behind him.

Irwin is a kind of Little Prince who needs to be reunited with a group of ghosts dwelling in one of the abandoned houses. There’s a cynic called Cup of Tea, impersonated by Robin Sachs; an androgynous figure called Flower, who suggests Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (an eccentric comeback role for Daryl Hannah); and a sightless, armless scholar called Happy, who studies things he can’t see through an elaborate optical mechanism rigged to his skull. This happy take on freakishness is entrusted to Anthony Edwards.

The movie throws itself on the mercy of whatever protectors may be lurking in the audience, willing to emulate a Father Harlan or a lost patrol of ghosts. Because it’s easy to misapprehend a lot of things in “Northfork,” such trust could be mislaid. For example, it looks as if Father Harlan is planning to drown Irwin ever so gently and reverently in a tub during one devious immersion sequence.

The latest brainstorm of twins Michael and Mark Polish, who collaborated on enigmatic earlier features titled “Twin Falls, Idaho” and “Jackpot,” “Northfork” is essentially an incongruous running gag. It illustrates how troublesome it can be to sustain a droll conception that may not be worth the effort. Specifically, the twins try to reconcile the tone of sketch comedy with locations that emphasize wide-open spaces. Imagine watching a stand-up comedy act in the middle of the Reata ranch in “Giant,” and you’ll have a reasonable idea of what to expect at “Northfork.”

The brothers collaborate on screenplays, and Michael directs. Mark doubles as an actor and producer in “Northfork.” He’s cast as the son of James Woods, the one performer who seems to anchor the conception. Dad is Walter, and son is Willis. They belong to a kind of Hat Squad of six, the remaining agents of an Evacuation Committee charged with making sure all residents have abandoned their homes.

Besides the ghosts, the die-hards consist of an amorous couple who evidently find it irresistibly exciting to copulate as the clock ticks down and a fundamentalist threesome consisting of a bigamous husband and his two wives. The husband insists they will ride out the flood in his homemade ark. The best sustained sequence in the movie depicts Mr. Woods changing their minds with a last-gasp sales pitch.

Father and son supposedly are haunted by a neglected chore: They haven’t moved a family coffin from the graveyard to higher ground. Although this aspect is freighted with pathos, it makes them look about as slow-thinking as the menage-a-trois. Evidently, it’s not enough to submerge the whole place in a watery grave. The filmmakers have to mock their principal characters as heartland sad sacks as well with a touch that makes no sense. It’s unlikely these men would have neglected the pious gesture that supposedly weighs on their conscience.

The Polish twins seem to be invoking the slippery term “magical realism” to explain some of their bum ideas, but they can be amusing without that crutch. For example, there’s a witty shot of the three Evacuation Committee sedans taking three different directions after approaching an intersection in single file. Such throwaways might be funny even in a town that wasn’t haunted by facetious specters of death.

*1/2

TITLE: “Northfork”

RATING: PG-13 (Systematic morbid humor; fleeting profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Polish. Written and produced by Mark and Michael Polish.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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