Reviewed by: Gary Duncan

It's 1955 and the town of Northfork, Montana, is about to be flooded to make way for a new dam. Walter O'Brien (James Woods) and his son Willis (Mark Polish) are part of a six-man "evacuation committee", charged with mopping up the last residents before the water breaks.

Northfork is an oddity, an American fairytale that mixes fantasy with reality, the surreal with the humdrum. It's a small film - it was shot on a shoestring in 24 days - that tackles big themes, such as love, loss, life and death, and never takes itself too seriously.

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Most of all, it is a film about people on the brink and how they react to circumstances beyond their control. Faced with eviction, one die-hard literally nails his boots (and feet) to his porch. Another hanger-on, a Mr Stalling - geddit? - builds an ark to weather the storm, rounding up two of everything, including a pair of wives, whom he introduces as Mrs Stalling and Mrs Stalling.

Eight-year-old Irwin (Duel Farnes) faces an even more uncertain future - sick and abandoned by his parents, he's left to die in the orphanage, cared for by Nick Nolte's grizzled, but compassionate, Father Harlan - but has his own peculiar way of dealing with his fate; he believes he's an angel and that he will be rescued by a rag-tag family of angels, living out on the Montana plains. All he has to do is convince them that he's one of them.

There's so much to like about Northfork that it's difficult to know where to start. You might find yourself not knowing where to stop, too, as it's one of those films that's still running through your mind days later.

Woods, as the jaded committee man, has never been better. At the start, we see him reading a letter. We don't need to see what it says. His tired eyes and sagging jowls tell us it's bad news. Ironic too: the evacuation expert has been served final notice that he must exhume his wife's coffin before the floods arrive.

Throughout, Woods gives a masterclass in repressed emotions - a raised eyebrow here, a world weary smile there - and we're never quite sure of Walter's exact motives. Each committee man has been promised an acre and a half of prime waterfront real estate, if they meet their eviction targets, but Walter and Co appear to have loftier goals. Perhaps they are supposed to be angels too, guiding the lost souls to a better place and offering them a pair of "angel wings" to help them on their way.

Maybe not. Maybe the Polish brothers, who wrote and directed the film, are just playing with us, trying to wrong-foot us, as they do throughout - switching genres, challenging us to look at things in different ways, throwing in laugh-out-loud lines that seem to come from nowhere.

Walter and his laconic cronies all wear black trench-coats and fedoras and drive shiny black Fords, a look that falls somewhere between faceless government bureaucrat and hip Reservoir Dog. It's also in keeping with the rest of the film and cinematographer David Mullen deserves credit here for making the most of the sparse Montana landscape with its sweeping plains, snow-capped mountains and washed-out colours.

Nolte and Woods forfeited their normal fees to make the film and the Polish brothers had to use their own AmEx cards to keep the production afloat. For that we should be truly thankful.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2004
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The town of Northfork, Montana, is about to be dammed and flooded, but some of the residents are determined to stay in their surreal American fairytale.
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Read more Northfork reviews:

Andrea Mullaney **
Jennie Kermode **

Director: Michael Polish

Writer: Mark Polish, Michael Polish

Starring: James Woods, Nick Nolte, Mark Polish, Duel Farnes, Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Anthony Edwards, Peter Coyote, Claire Forlani, Kyle MacLachlan, Marshall Bell

Year: 2003

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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