Northfork (2003)

2003-07-11 (Limited release)

Daryl Hannah as hermaphrodyte angel. A strange and sublime concept, conjured by Mark and Michael Polish, it is also the perfect use of Hannah’s long limbs and unusual angles. As Flower Hercules, with sad eyes, short black hair, and a gentle manner, Hannah brings a haunting and much welcome generosity to Northfork, the third installment of the brothers’ “American trilogy,” after Twin Falls Idaho (1999) and Jackpot (2001).

While only one component in Northfork‘s odd vista, Flower Hercules stands out, in part because s/he is not a man, in a film full of them, in pressed suits and ragged duress, by degrees frustrated, bristling, and conniving. Flower Hercules is also unusual among her crew of angels, the leader Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), mute cowboy Cod (Ben Foster), and gadget-maker Happy (Anthony Edwards), with wooden hands and elaborately thick glasses. Compared to her edgy and distracted fellows, Flower Hercules is gracious and attentive.

The object of her focus is Irwin (Duel Farnes), a pasty, ailing orphan who floats in and out of restive dreams throughout the film, and who may or may not be imagining these angels as a way of saving himself. With bumps on his head that may have been caused by a halo and scars on his back that look like remnants of missing wings, Irwin has it in his head that he’s an angel left behind by accident, looking to be reunited with relatives he never knew he had.

The desire is understandable, as Irwin’s earthly existence is bereft of good news. At film’s beginning, he’s abandoned by his adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hadfield (Clark Gregg and Claire Forlani), who leave him with at a home with ravaged Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). The institution is ominously empty, as everyone else has also left town. The reason for their flight is the film’s second major plot-point-as-metaphor (after, or in tandem with, the angels): it’s 1955, and Northfork, Montana is about to be flooded, owing to a spangly new hydroelectric dam. Everyone has been urged to move on, in the name of “progress.”

In its poetic, elusive way, Northfork takes up this notion of “progress.” For some, like Irwin and the Hadfields, impending events are disastrous. When the parents leave, uttering precious few lines between them, the child serves as the sympathetic, vulnerable, if somewhat mythic, individual; at the same time, the dam, along with its black-suited, narrow-tied representatives, become emblems of earnest industry and the future from which there is no turning back.

The action takes place during the last 48 hours before the flood. But it still moves deliberately, granting each separate scene its own frame, a beginning and end. The men go forth in pairs, “Evacuation Teams” who encourage residents to leave, with inducements including cash and their own motivation as well (they’ve been promised parcels of “lakefront property” following the deluge). One team is a father and son, Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and Willis (Mark Polish), who must also cope with the fact that the changing landscape necessitates digging up graves, including the one where Walter’s wife is buried: “When this small town becomes the biggest lake this side of the Mississippi,” he tells Willis, “your mother will be the catch of the day.”

All of the Evacuators share a similarly offbeat sense of humor, though whether this derives from or is inspired by their work is hard to say. They begin their mission with inspiring instruction (“Just go in like you’re guardian angels”), then ride in black Fords, across stark gray landscapes, each team assigned a recalcitrant holdout. Among these is one old man who’s nailed himself to his porch and takes to shooting at his “angels,” but in such a lackadaisical way that both parties — shooter and shootees — end up falling asleep, waking with a start, to realize the futility of their disparate “missions.” Another is a man with two wives, who’s refashioned his home as an ark, ready to float away when the waters come.

In fact, the film, like the other two by the identical twin Polish brothers, thematizes doubleness, in the two-man teams, two stories, two days before the flood. But it also finds difference in sameness, the layered pairings offering points of view that mirror but also refract one another. Most especially, Flower Hercules embodies a visible doubleness and quiet self-consciousness beyond typical understandings of individuality and movement. Much less interested in plot than in theme and image, Northfork imagines a journey without a clear end, along the way challenging, in particular, U.S. myths of enduring national identity, corporate good will, and westward-ho expansions.