I've come to accept what some people see in Northfork, but as the credits rolled, you couldn't have convinced me that anyone anywhere would ever really want to watch it. Sanity returned, as I remembered P.T. Barnum competitor David Hannum's famous dictum "There's a sucker born every minute." Well, it's not a film reviewer's job to begrudge those who like a movie said reviewer finds repellent. But it is a reviewer's job to promote cinema he or she finds worthy while warning the public to avoid the rest. I'm warning you: don't waste your time on Northfork.
Northfork is billed, pretentiously, as the third part of the Polish Brothers' debut trilogy. While the press notes report the brothers' description of their style as an American version of Magical Realism, the notes also name-drop Terry Gilliam, who--with tongue in cheek--describes Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a trilogy. With its predecessors--the over-rated Twin Falls, Idaho and the practically unknown Jackpot--Northfork shares a Northwestern American setting and an obsessively derivative and self-important blankness.
In 1955, Northfork faces an apocalyptic "sea change": the town is to be flooded to accommodate hydroelectric dam-nation. The remaining squatter citizens must be bloodlessly evicted, so the job falls to a six-member Evacuation Committee, including Walter (James Woods) and his son Willis (writer-producer Mark Polish). Working in two-man teams, the trench-coated, fedora-wearing posse stumbles door-to-door around the eerie plains like government-sponsored Jehovah's Witnesses.
Meanwhile, a wacked-out priest (Nick Nolte) tries to pawn off a sick orphan (Duel Farnes) to the hardiest young couple he can find. The orphan fever-dreams throughout the picture, conjuring up a team of earthbound angels including, and here I think I'll quote the press kit, "the blind, double-amputee Happy (ANTHONY EDWARDS); the androgynous, childless Flower Hercules (DARYL HANNAH); the mute, stoical Cod (BEN FOSTER) and the drunken, cynical Cup of Tea (ROBIN SACHS)." Are you sold yet?
Lovers of eccentric cinema might like the sound of this, until they realize they've bought a ticket to a film-school nightmare. The Polish brothers (Michael co-wrote, produced, and directed) obviously love the film heroes on which their generation (and mine) was weaned: the Coens, Gilliam, Lynch. But surely no one who likes the Coens, Gilliam, and Lynch could stand to sit through this pap, could they?
I can credit M. David Mullen's fancy cinematography and the Polishs' ambition to explore themes around dealing with life-changing reorientation, but I cringe at the results all the same. The accomplished cast plugs ahead gamely, no doubt attracted by Nolte's involvement (Nolte joined the project after appearing with both Polishes in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief). But watching these actors flail is like rubbernecking at a ten-car pile-up.
Though their films are set in the Northwest, the Polish's form and content are all over the map. Northfork appears to have been storyboarded within an inch of its "life" as it peddles tired, thuddingly obvious symbolism. Early on, the Committee of identically dressed white men in dark hats step out of their black sedans, and stride past a row of generators, down a concrete corridor to a meeting hall located at the heart of the "Power House." Aha! I get it!
Taken on its own, this lark on corrupt authority might have taken flight. In the context of lugubrious Biblical imagery and earnest, heart-tugging sentiment ("We are all angels. It is what we do with our wings which separates us"), and worse, resistible pop culture shtick (at one point, a character deadpans, "What're you talking about, Willis?"), Northfork quickly becomes an insufferable load of hooey. The film ends with the comment "It's a lesson it's taken me sixty years to learn." After twenty minutes, I was ready to run screaming from the theater. I stayed so you won't have to. Every time the credits roll, a critic gets its wings.