Complete with actors and narrative as slaves to pure allegory, a lovely, desolate landscape sucked dry of any meaning, and sub-Lynchian weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, the Polish brother’s new film Northfork
is frustrating in its attempted elegiac beauty. Much too obscure and self-involved in its own myth, the brothers have fashioned a grand fable of vaguely broad proportions, and its flaws seem innate in the material; gleefully scripted with amateur quirkiness and constant allegorical smugness, the film could not pull off its atmosphere of grandiose fairy-tale if it weren’t as pretentious and confused as all get out.
Twin narratives lazily intertwine as people of Northfork are forced to evacuate their town; in the America of 1955 the government celebrates progress above all else, and a dam has been built to provide Northfork with electricity. In the vein of much of the film’s misfiring eccentric sense of humor the same dam that the town will benefit from is forcing the population to abandon Northfork’s original location for higher ground. The death of the town is reflected both in the starkness of the Montana landscape-as dry and drained of color as bone, with only foundation marks and a hastily dug-up cemetery hinting at any trace of a two hundred year old town-and in the vague fatal illness of Irwin (Duel Farnes), a young orphan boy from the town cast off at the beginning of the film by his parents because of his condition, and now placed under the care of Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). Meanwhile, the town of Northfork nearly kaput, three pairs of men volunteer for the governmental job of making sure the last remnants of the living move along-among the G-men: Peter Coyote, Mark Polish, James Woods, and Graham Beckel- all theatrically decked out in matching black suits, trenchcoats and automobiles. The distastefully confrontive job of forcing citizens off their own land is generously paid back to the G-men temps by a reward of beautiful lakefront property once the inhabitants are crossed off the list and the old town forever covered with water.
Lately there is the mistaken assumption in American cinema that anything helmed by a filmmaking brother team-be it as grand and commercial as The Matrix
, as introverted and niche as The Man Who Wasn’t There
or as pleasantly boring as Welcome To Collinwood
-has to be wholly unique, not necessarily in its narrative and its characters (though that is common), but also exceptional in its created world, a product of the pseudo-incestuous, strange brand of creativity that can spur forth when siblings collaborate. Northfork
strives hard to achieve something strange and special, a strain that is dismally evident a third the way through the film when the viewer finally realizes that the entire film-world is purposely constructed as a massive allegory with a hard-shell crust of the bizarre to surround it. An allegory for what is never quite clear; the death of a town being too pat for the length the film goes to build such a grandiose fable. For a film that introduces a few grounded, interesting ideas-namely mercenary citizens doing all they can to evict their neighbors for materially gain, and the kind of people left behind when a town dies (the religious, the sick, the children)-the Polish brothers, Michael directing, Mark acting and both writing/producing, feel the need to use a sledgehammer to visualize their concept in a nearly unwatchable combination of the Lynch-strange and the Spielberg-heavy hand.
Angels are the principal conceptual image the brothers work so hard to envision on a number of levels, the key ones being the G-men as saviors flying the inhabitants of Northfork to higher ground (as if them wearing feathers in their caps and wings on their breasts were not proof enough, their boss even instructs them to act as angels), and Irwin and the other orphans of the town being angelic in their child uniqueness. These images of direct, if obvious, metaphors are not hard to swallow, but instead of setting Northfork in a serene, meditative state of simple images that range from possibly poignant (the G-men specially equipped to “fly” people away) to dangerously cloying (parentless children as angels), the brothers inject peculiar eccentricity to complicate the film into allegorical incoherence.
The first instance of this is in Irwin’s infirmed moments of unconsciousness. He dreams that he finds a group of lost heavenly creatures (played by Daryl Hannah, Ben Foster, Robin Sachs, and Anthony Edwards) that are looking for the Unknown Angel. The group are drenched in pseudo-Victorian outlandish costumes and have a preference for melancholy pessimism, bad puns, and other oddities: Hannah has safety pins attached to her bald head, Sachs’ character is named Cup of Tea, Edwards has no hands, and Foster, wearing a cowboy hat and transcribing music from a music box, seems to have fallen out of Mulholland Dr. and into the Polish brother’s timeless landscape of desolate Montana. Irwin tries to convince the group that he is the angel they have been searching for by showing them marks where his halo was removed and his wings surgically severed. Through his need to prove his angelic past Irwin actually seems to be trying to convince the troupe to let him die (he is not only suffering from an illness, but from loneliness as well). But just when one thinks Irwin’s dream is merely a thematically questionable extension of his want to leave this strange, empty world, it is revealed that the G-men literally give Northfork citizens angel wings to help them move. Angel wings removed from small child angels. The implication sounds horrific; young angels roaming the Montana countryside until their wings are ripe and removed so as to help people travel to the next stage of their lives (physically or spiritually it is not clear) is far too much semiotic nonsense for one to process.
Meanwhile, the few people the G-men run into, the ones refusing to leave Northfork, do not seem to support the possibility that moving from Northfork is metaphor for anything in particular. Instead, the brothers seem to enjoy employing episodes of varying quirkiness and vague meaning: G-men breaking into a house, interrupting a couple having sex and then strong-arming them out of town; finding a man who has nailed his feet to his front porch and shoots at trespassers; eating lunch at a café where a woman with a man’s voice requires the G-men to guess the menu; and a man who has build his house on a boat, filling it with animal trophies and his two wives.
In the end (well, to be more accurate, after fifteen or twenty minutes), the Polish brother’s story is tiresome and exhaustive. An over-sweet score that coats every “whimsical” moment of the film, and an interesting, but pointless, landscape of empty Montana wilderness do little more than drill into the audience’s head that the filmmakers are trying to fashion their own special brand of bittersweet fable, one where every thing seems either capitalized for maximum importance (Angel, Death, Child, etc.) or put into precious quotations. While the “quirky” puns and episodes pass by with ever increasing monotony, and hackneyed characters, endless cloying imagery and, “please be moved by our odd story” moments come and go, the brain finally shuts down and stops trying to process why angels are trying to help any of these people, who so exist in their own dimension of Polish Bros. Land that no one cares whether they die, succeed or are moved along by angels-forever taken from the Earth, and from us-once the credits runs.