Like the Coen brothers, filmmaking siblings Michael and Mark Polish are known for featuring weird and wonderful characters their movies. But while the Coens inject black humour throughout their films, the Polish twins are slowly carving a name for themselves with romantic comedy. Not the Julia-Roberts-you’ve-got-mail-quivering-lip-of-loved-filled-joy type romantic comedy, but real love running through an eccentric dream-like world.
In the duo’s debut Twin Falls, Idaho (1999) they played Siamese twins forced to undergo a separation when one of them becomes ill. Meanwhile, the twins fall for the same girl who enters their insular life. Now with Northfork they have focused on, well, earthbound angels.
In the 1950s the American Government flooded many small mid-western towns in order to make way for huge manmade lakes that formed part of a new hydroelectric project. The fictional town of Northfork is one of those towns about to be wiped off the face of the earth. A team of black Ford-driving agents have been selected to evacuate the towns people, their tariff being an acre-and-a-half of prime lake-side land. Most go willingly, but a select number of stayers hang-on, including a religious nut who has built his own ark (complete with a pair of wives), a man who has literally nailed himself to his porch and a couple who can’t keep their hands off one another for long enough to contemplate moving.
Mr and Mrs Hope have meanwhile dropped their sickly son Irwin (Duel Farns) in the hands of the angel-obsessed Father Harlen (Nick Nolte), after deciding he isn’t strong enough to make the migration. “We are all angels. It’s what we do with our wings that separates us,” says Harlen. Irwin takes him a little too literally and in his fever dreams up four earthbound angels – a handless scholar, Happy (Anthony Edwards), a mute scribbler, Cod (Ben Foster), a doting mother-figure, Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah) and a misanthropic English gent drunkard, Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) – not exactly inline with the divine image. Little Irwin tries to convince them that he is the cherub they have been seeking, it’s just that his wings were amputated by hunters when he was a small child. Irwin is clearly dying, and these figures he has dreamed up could be considered to be mere feverish manifestations, designed to help him in his transition to death. However, the fact that this is merely a dream is never made implicit, and the reality (albeit pretty bizarre itself) crosses paths with the imaginary world.
The Polish twins have deliberately limited the costumes and props to shades of grey in order match them to the harsh mid-west backdrop. These vast expanses of land – dry desert, mountains and limitless sky – allow men see how insignificant they are in the scheme of things and help to promote a sense of the divine.
Northfork is slow moving and entrancing, a pace that matches its tone, which evokes a fable. It is the tale of the death of a town running parallel with the death of an innocent. The film has its fair share of humour but it is never laugh out loud, it merely helps guide us through this ultimately touching testament to those people who battled to inhabit a barren patch of land before being forced to up root and leave. It ensures their story doesn’t get buried along with their homes.