An image from unreality: An angel named Flower Hercules helps a colleague named Happy remove his special ceramic hands and replace them with his everyday wooden ones, sliding them in until they're secure on pegs somewhere inside his shirtsleeves.
The seemingly permeable border between a slightly surreal ordinary life and a tactile dreamworld is one key to Northfork, the rather unclassifiable new film from director Michael Polish. From its dry humor to its sincere spirituality, it's an enigmatic but affecting statement that at moments suggests the Coen brothers taking on Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, if that's not too much of a paradox.
The film is set in 1950s Montana, where a new dam is about to flood the town of Northfork. Six government agents are dispatched to evacuate the few stubborn residents who've yet to leave; meanwhile, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) cares for an orphan boy named Irwin (Duel Farnes), whose adoptive parents have suddenly returned him because of his frail health.
The fedora-clad agents work in pairs, including Walter O'Brien (James Woods) and his son, Willis (co-screenwriter Mark Polish), who have one additional concern: Walter's late wife's coffin remains in the town cemetery. Back at the orphanage, Irwin dreams fever-dreams of trying to convince a quartet of angels sequestered in a doomed frame house that he's the mysterious Unknown Angel they've been searching for.
As in their striking 1998 debut, Twin Falls Idaho, the twin Polish brothers create in Northfork a haunted world. Only this time, rather than existential question marks, the spirits are literal, or at least represented on screen. The angels include the droll, foppish Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); melancholy Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), whose wig keeps sliding off; silent, cowboy-costumed Cod (Ben Foster); and Happy (Anthony Edwards), a sort of scientist with multi-lensed glasses and prosthetic paws.
That these angels seem too sophisticated to spring from the imagination of a rural 8-year-old orphan is one of the film's intentional, partially answered riddles. Northfork is almost hermetically self-referential, from the contents of Irvin's nightstand and the little winged lapel pins the agents wear as they go about evicting, say, a man who's built an ark, to the cryptic double-entendre dialogue. "It's our job to move people, not to change their beliefs," says Willis.
You can picture the Polish brothers saying the same thing. The humor of the agents' interactions is sylized and Coen-esque, while Harlan's relationship with Irwin is starkly poetic -- but the filmmakers always seem to know just what they want out of their actors, and how to get it. Theirs is a promising new voice in American film.