The Polish Brothers’ “Northfork” Disquieting Meditation on the Vanishing American Frontier
by Patrick Z. McGavin
The third feature from the Polish brothers, “Northfork,” opens with a surreally beautiful image of a casket floating to the surface of a massive body of water. The movie’s visual acuity is constant and pure. The final part of the brothers’ loose trilogy about the underside of the American landscape, this strange, often disquieting movie is a mass of contradictions, dramatically underrealized though a knock out as a succession of bold, painterly images.
A meditation on the vanishing American frontier, this is the most fully realized of the Polish brothers’ films, though it remains a knotty, frustrating work. Michael Polish directed the movie, and he wrote and produced it with his twin brother Mark, who plays a critical role in the movie. M. David Mullen, who has photographed all three movies, is the film’s real virtuoso. Mullen’s crisp, widescreen frame conjures up a magnificent world of verdant plains and ravishing horizontal lines. His graceful camera hovers and floats around the movie’s ineffable subject, the possessive urge for independence and freedom in violent opposition with the need for community and social innovation.
“Northfork,” named for a fictional Montana town, is about a community earmarked for oblivion, its beautiful open spaces and rapturous landscape being purposely flooded to allow for a new hydroelectric process. The brothers posit two dominant stories, echoing and breaking them off each other to gather a peculiar and graceful symmetry.
In one of the stories, a dangerously young boy, Irwin, is left in the care of the town’s craggy, humane priest (Nick Nolte, brilliant as ever). The boy constructs an outrageously stylized fantasy life, transforming the objects in his room into four melancholy itinerant angels who are searching for a lost member of their tribe.
The boy’s story is bracketed against the activities of the “evacuation committee,” six identically attired men who are charged with facilitating the dispossession of the land, convincing the residents to abandon their property through force and persuasion. The committee is comprised of three two-man teams, and the boy’s plight is counterpointed against the tortured perspective of Walter (James Woods) and his son, Willis (Mark Polish).
The remains of the town’s cemetery are being disinterred, and the two are struggling about ensuring a proper burial of Walter’s wife and Willis’ mother (that stunning image that opened the movie was Walter’s hallucination).
Story and characterization have never been the brothers’ strong suit. “Northfork” is less a story than a collage of free form, sinuous images. Fortunately, the images have density and weight, such as Nolte’s church, suspended by cinder blocks, with its wall knocked out and offering a vivid view of the rolling hills. A man, awaiting a message from God to forfeit his land, has built a replica of Noah’s arc, complete with two wives.
The storytelling is deliberately vague and opaque, the shift between consciousness and fantasy is somewhat awkwardly imposed, though the formal strategy creates its own internal rhythm, sustaining its contemplative, lyrical mood. It is a distancing work, one that prevents easy identification with the characters. The angels are eccentrically stylized, afforded a narrow range of habits and behavioral gestures (though Daryl Hannah provides a strange, devastatingly sad turn as an androgynous seeker whose love for the boy is potent and emotionally revealing).
“Northfork” was the first script the brothers wrote in their trilogy. Though it is marred by the blunt Christian imagery, it also suggests a maturity and confidence that is beautiful and thrilling to behold. “Northfork” runs just an hour and a half, and that is all this story is capable of supporting. The command and assurance of the Polish brothers is impressive, and this insinuating, fascinating movie has a magnetic, eerie pull.