[box cover]


Paramount Home Video

Starring Peter Coyote, Anthony Edwards, Daryl Hannah,
Kyle MacLachlan, Nick Nolte, Mark Polish,
and James Woods

Written by Mark and Michael Polish
Directed by Michael Polish

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Review by Scott Anderson                    

"Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling, for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted. Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now…"

— Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir

The love one has for their childhood home can often paint their memories with grandeur that quickly falls apart upon returning as an adult. When the rolling plains of Montana were your stomping grounds as a youngster, with the open sky and mountain ranges still intact, a certain amount of magic would surely remain. If you are Michael and Mark Polish, you dedicate the beginnings of your career to documenting this place, in a series of films devoted to capturing the spirit of America's heartland. Northfork (2003) is the third film in the Polish Brothers' trilogy (after Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot) intended to serve such a purpose. It was, in fact, the first screenplay they wrote. While no one would allow the first-time filmmakers to make the movie, it did open doors with their writing style, and after two acclaimed projects they returned to their first love. Bringing together a stellar cast with a shoestring budget that required having their father build sets, the brothers have created a film that will leave some marveling at its storytelling, and others scoffing at its pretentious attempts at art.

The town of Northfork is dying. A new hydroelectric dam will begin operating soon, and when it does the plains on which Northfork sits will become a lake. The government has sent an Evacuation Committee to convince the remaining homesteaders to leave their homes. In exchange for their services, the six committee men will receive an acre-and-a-half of prime lakeside real estate. Motivation enough, of course, to do whatever they must to get the stragglers to leave town. Armed with $1,000 for each person, as well as an "authentic" pair of angel wings, they travel to the Noah's Arc-building, shotgun-wielding residents of Northfork in an attempt to save them from the flood to come. Evacuation team members Walter (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish) carry an additional burden — Walter's dead wife is buried in the Northfork Cemetery, and in his worst fears, her casket will rise to the surface of the new Northfork Lake.

A parallel story tells the tale of Irwin (Duel Farnes), a terminally ill boy whose parents flee the impending flood and leave their burden in the hands of resident clergyman Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). In Irwin's feverish dreams, he has created a fantasy world in which he believes he is an angel. An odd group of gypsies are searching the plains of Northfork in search of the "Unknown Angel," and Irwin desperately wants them to believe that he is it. The gypsies include Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah), the Mother-Father; Cod (Ben Foster), the interpreter of scripture; the aristocratic leader of the group Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); and Happy (Anthony Edwards), the appraiser of religious artifacts. Each of these characters, along with their pet (a walking dog seemingly made of sticks), can be seen in the various items that rest on Irwin's nightstand — a Hercules comic, a cup of tea, a bottle of cod liver oil, Father Harlan's cane, a vase in the shape of ceramic hands, and his Viewfinder. Through these visions, Irwin imagines leaving Northfork and believes these angels and spirits are there to escort him away to their home.

The decline of homesteaders in the 1950s was more a result of climatic changes that ruined crops, as well as a low birth rate, although the government certainly had a vested interest in building dams like the one upon which Northfork's dam is based. While the Old West was made from the stuff of myth and legend, the homesteaders were in many ways the true story of the West, and during the earlier years it seemed that the venture would pay off. A weather system, now acknowledged as a fluke, gave the first settlers an amazing wealth of crops. Around 1920, the weather would become what we still see today — 70 mph winds, blizzards and hailstorms, and other generally inhospitable conditions. As the yield shifted from bountiful to barren, the era of the homesteaders slowly came to an end. During the late 1980s, the U.S. Census determined that the majority of land originally held by homesteaders, around the size of the original Louisiana Purchase, was down to six people per square mile. Interestingly enough, in that same census, the rate of Native American population growth had increased by 18%. It's a fascinating part of American history, remembered mostly in popular culture as seen in "Little House on the Prairie," and while Northfork is certainly not a historical piece, it is an interesting look into a period of history often remembered for the antics of cowboys and outlaws.

Northfork itself, with its parallel storytelling, uses this time and place as an allegory for death. The story of Irwin, with its fairy-tale imagery and whimsical nature, is an obvious parallel of the death of the town itself, although this presents a certain amount of pretentiousness to the overall narrative. The tale of the Evacuation Committee, while well played by the strong cast and delivering humor and heart (in the form of Willis' struggle to understand death), might not be interesting enough to carry the film itself. The blending of the two story-lines asks viewers to decide for themselves if the events in Irwin's visions are in fact separate from reality. The Polish brothers use of imagery, clever editing, and religious iconography adds a certain level of weight, which if viewed removed from their own affections for the subject matter would seem over the top in its execution. The film moves at a slow pace, and the 103-minute running-time certainly feels a bit longer. Whether one wants to credit this to the filmmakers for creating a statement on the slowness of death, or simply a problem with the material, it will go a long way in determining one's enjoyment of the film. Additionally, the Polish Brothers and cinematographer M. David Mullen have worked hard to create a grayscale palette while shooting on color film stock. This results in a rather stark landscape, broken only by the expanses of blue sky, the yellow and browns of dying earth, and the skin tones of the actors. A sublime telling of the passing of a part of American history, Northfork is an artistic accomplishment and a testament to the power of independent filmmaking.

*          *          *

Paramount presents Northfork in an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and the number of wide shots in the film make viewing it in widescreen an absolute must. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds good, although the vocal track is very quiet and may require listening at a high volume to capture all of the dialogue (if not viewed with optional subtitles). Michael and Mark Polish provide an audio commentary in which they explain the artistic decisions made in each scene. The short "24-Frame News" segment from the Sundance Channel provides a brief "making-of" look, which is expanded in detail in a series of short films called "Bareknuckle Filmmaking: The Construction of Northfork." Also included are the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery.

— Scott Anderson

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2004, The DVD Journal