A trip to "Northfork" is the visit of a lifetime, as long as you're willing to give in to the giddy feeling of never knowing exactly where you are and what you're seeing. Just about every minute of this stunning surrealist drama demands intense concentration. But for viewers who can still perceive in that challenge the promise of a Good Time, the rewards are vast indeed.
Set in 1955, the picture chronicles the last days of Northfork, Mont., a town that's about to be flooded as part of a government project. A few holdouts remain in their homes, necessitating the arrival of a six-man evacuation team whose job it is to shoo them on to a new life somewhere over the hills. Dressed in standard-issue suits and hats, these wryly persistent G-men are the self-styled "angels" of the Northfork exodus. (The lineup includes Peter Coyote, James Woods and producer/co-writer Michael Polish.)
At the same time, a sickly young boy is returned to the local orphanage by his cowardly parents, who fear he won't survive the journey out of town. His fate becomes the responsibility of the local padre (Nick Nolte, totally washing away the stink of "The Hulk"), who prays for another set of adoptive parents to appear in the nick of time. Yet he won't release the boy into the custody of just anybody. While he waits for the right couple, the boy drifts in and out of consciousness, conducting a dreamy interaction with four wraithlike individuals who say they're looking for a lost angel -- an identity the child is eager to claim as his own.
Played by a well-chosen cast of actors, including Daryl Hannah and Anthony Edwards, these oddball emissaries have names like Flower Hercules and Cup of Tea. Are they figments of the boy's imagination, or do they have a life that exists beyond the borders of his fevered brain? The answer isn't cut and dried, especially when their story begins to overlap with that of the evacuation agents, whose rounds of the town are deepening their own awareness of mortality.
Directed and co-written by Polish's brother Mark -- the pair also crafted "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Jackpot" -- "Northfork" is rich in pathos, grace and absurdist humor. Bad puns abound. The filmmakers favor obscure dissolves and ghostly images, all thrown into stark relief by the grayscale palette of director of photography M. David Mullen, who ensures that the pinkish hue of the characters' cheeks is often the only color on the screen.
It takes at least two viewings to determine where the movie's reality ends and its fantasy begins, and even then, the answer you arrive at may not match that of your neighbor. At times, the attitude emanating from the screen suggests David Lynch with a bigger heart, and that sly sensitivity is what really sells the script's story of attrition and acceptance. In ways far subtler than the average art-house picture, Northfork submits that catastrophic change is inevitable, then makes you feel as if inevitability is A-OK. It's a flood of peculiar divinity that just sweeps you along in its wake.