American art movies rarely come fancier or emptier than Northfork, a down-home arabesque made of angel fluff.
It's set in 1955, in a small Montana town about to be flooded for a hydroelectric dam. But the picture actually unfolds in an ethereal time-space continuum known only to the moviemaking Polish Brothers, Michael and Mark, who co-wrote it; Michael also directed, and Mark co-stars with James Woods. They envision Montana as a place where cherubim roamed as freely as bison.
Now the magic has evaporated and middle-class security and conformity have arrived, epitomized by a half-dozen archetypal organization men (among them Woods and Polish, as a father and son team). Outfitted in charcoal-gray coats and fedoras and driving solid black sedans, they hope to evacuate the few stubborn remaining Northforkers in order to win an acre and a half of soon-to-be-created waterfront property.
The filmmakers counterpoint the Evacuators' lowly quest with the high-flown ambition of four rococo immortals (Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards, Ben Foster and Robin Sachs) to locate a long-lost member of their otherworldly family. The likely candidate is an ailing orphan named Irwin (Duel Farnes), but this oddball quartet wastes an eternity coming to the obvious conclusion.
Maybe that's because Irwin is a slow dreamer. The movie leaves us with a narrative conundrum: Are angels real creatures or merely figments of Irwin's deathbed urge for transcendence? The Polish Brothers divide Irwin's screen time between his astral interplay with Hannah's traveling freak-show (which includes an oversized wicker dog) and the simultaneous efforts of devoted Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), who calls Irwin an angel, to nurse him back to earthly health.
The Polish Brothers must love a parade, but they don't know how to keep their images afloat or provide a drumbeat; they deliver a limp succession of metaphor-laden tableaux on themes of expanding or curtailing visions of life and afterlife. The Brothers depict a waitress at a ghostly diner still selling soup despite bare shelves, and, later, a self-styled Noah with two of everything, including wives. Meanwhile Woods and his son debate how to dispose of their wife and mother's remains, still interred in the Northfork cemetery.
Through these vignettes and others like them, the filmmakers present habit, sex, memory and devotion as inadequate defenses against the ravages of time and history. But why did they have to be so plodding and heavy-handed about it? You may give up hope when you realize that a couple who balk at adopting Irwin are named Mr. and Mrs. Hope (Kyle McLachlan and Michele Hicks).
Nolte acts with admirable fervor, but the script forces him to muse on whether humanity is halfway to heaven or to hell; at least one of the Evacuators gets to maintain, more amusingly, that Americans are divided between Ford owners and Chevy owners. Not even Dada-esque touches like the wicker dog can prevent the movie's stark, static beauty from becoming monotonous.
The Polish Brothers probably intended to create a vision as lasting in its way as Grant Wood's American Gothic. Complete with a retro-medieval flavor and gray-to-black morbidity, what they've come up with is more like Western Goth.
Starring James Woods and Nick Nolte
Directed by Michael Polish
Released by Paramount Classics
Time 94 minutes
Sun Score * 1/2