A dream of the Old West lacquered in dust and silt, Michael Polish's "Northfork" eulogizes what might be the last town on the last frontier of the last untouched corner of God's country -- a place where the buffalo roam, but in the company of earthbound angels, devils and other majestic creatures on the verge of extinction.

A dream of the Old West lacquered in dust and silt, Michael Polish’s “Northfork” eulogizes what might be the last town on the last frontier of the last untouched corner of God’s country — a place where the buffalo roam, but in the company of earthbound angels, devils and other majestic creatures on the verge of extinction. Though set in 1955, “Northfork” examines the original American pioneer spirit and its evolution from a force to discover unseen lands toone that paves them over. But it is also a highly modern film, speculating on the conundrum of Manifest Destiny, on what may save man from his insatiable desire to consume himself. Love it or hate it, “Northfork” is a cinematic vision (visually and textually) unlike any with which most moviegoers, even arthouse regulars, will be familiar, and reps a significant, but not insurmountable marketing challenge for distrib Paramount Classics.

“Northfork,” which concerns the impending flooding of a town on the Montana Plains as part of a hydroelectric damming project, is like a frappe of “Wild River,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “Barton Fink,” with a little “Wizard of Oz” thrown in for good measure. What emerges is a magical mystery about the excavation of sacred objects and the inevitable expansion of the capitalist cosmos.

The flooding of Northfork promises to bring power to the town (the first of a series of delicious verbal puns that punctuate and, at times, nearly overwhelm pic’s dialogue). And the plot, as it were, of “Northfork” concerns an evacuation team of six fedora- and trenchcoat-outfitted men, among them the father-son team of Walter (James Woods) and Willis (Mark Polish) O’Brien, placed in charge of moving Northfork’s few remaining residents from their low-lying homesteads to higher ground. Each evacuation team member will receive 1½ acres of soon-to-be-waterfront property in exchange for his efforts, provided he successfully evacuates at least 65 families.

There is also the matter of Patricia — late wife of Walter and mother to Willis: Her coffin is in need of relocation as it’s among the last to remain buried in dug-up Northfork Cemetery.

And there is dying, orphaned boy Irwin (newcomer Duel Farnes), left in the care of Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) after all the doctors have left Northfork. Irwin, who has wings-and-halo scars on the appropriate body parts, may or may not be the “unknown angel” sought by the ragtag inhabitants of a ghostly frontier saloon — pale, androgynous Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah); spectacled Happy (Anthony Edwards); mute Cod (Ben Foster); and fey, acerbic Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) — who may or may not be angels themselves.

For Polish (who co-wrote and produced with twin brother Mark), pic is a huge leap out of the creative-writing class and into the fray of real, full-bodied moviemaking after the terminally precious and self-absorbed “Twin Falls Idaho” and “Jackpot.”

Indeed, the Polishes have crafted a snow globe of a movie, its curved surface radiating fantastic distortions of perception. And if that detracts from pic’s value as mainstream entertainment, pic nonetheless invites its viewers on a sweeping journey, albeit one related through highly impressionistic, tragicomic fragments of images and ideas. These include a house constructed as an ark (whose owner, played by wonderful character actor Marshall Bell, is amassing two of everything, including wives) and a cafe, run by an octogenarian transsexual, where one must guess at the contents of the menu before ordering.

If the experiment doesn’t always succeed — the fantasy bits involving Irwin and the “unknown angel” seekers never fit in as well as they should — the residual impact is strong. Like the best work of David Lynch, “Northfork” is that rare movie that draws you in more (rather than alienating you) at precisely those moments when you least understand it.

Visual design concocted by the Polishes with cinematographer M. David Mullen and production designers Ichelle Spitzig and Del Polish is dense and meticulous; they’ve essentially attempted to shoot a black-and-white movie on color film stock. (It is one of the best-looking movies ever made on a 24-day shooting schedule.)

But what is most impressive about “Northfork” is the fierce commitment of its actors, particularly Woods, to pic’s inner rhythms and hidden logic, so that they become our guides through the Polishes’ idiosyncratic and frequently intimidating world, and so that we are deeply moved by their work even without knowing exactly why.

Northfork

Production

A Paramount Classics release of a Paramount Classics, Romano/Shane Prods., Departure Entertainment presentation. Produced by Mark Polish, Michael Polish. Executive producers, Paul F. Mayersohn, James Woods, Anthony Romano, Michel Shane, Janet Jensen, Damon Martin. Co-producers, Todd King, Paul Torok. Co-executive producers, Bruce E. Jones, Barbara A. Jones, Gil Amaral. Directed by Michael Polish. Screenplay, Mark Polish, Michael Polish.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), M. David Mullen; editor, Leo Trombetta; music, Stewart Matthewman; production designers, Ichelle Spitzig, Del Polish; art director, David Storm; set decorator, Erin Smith; costume designer, Danny Glicker; sound (Dolby Digital), Matthew Nicolay; supervising sound editors, Christopher Sheldon, Dane A. Davis; sound designers, Jim Wolvington, Harry Cohen; special effects, Garry Tunnicliffe, Mike Regan; associate producers, Jonathan Sheldon, Chad Troutwine, Jon Gries; assistant director, Andrew Coffing; second unit director, Adam Rehmeier; second unit camera, Jeffrey Guziak. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2003. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Walter O'Brien - James Woods Father Harlan - Nick Nolte Mrs. Hadfield - Claire Forlani Irwin - Duel Farnes Willis O'Brien - Mark Polish Flower Hercules - Daryl Hannah Marvin - Graham Beckel Matt - Josh Barker Eddie - Peter Coyote Arnold - Jon Gries Cup of Tea - Robin Sachs Cod - Ben Foster Happy - Anthony Edwards Mr. Stalling - Marshall Bell Mr. Hope - Kyle MacLachlan Mrs. Hope - Michele Hicks
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