We saw “Northfork” by accident. “The Swimming Pool” with Charlotte Rampling was playing at our local art house, but we got the times mixed up. I remembered seeing trailers for Northfork, and it seemed like a good bet, an anti-Western Western about an old Montana town that’s destroyed by a dam.
The promise of “Northfork” is a glimpse of the old, extractive economy colliding with the new energy industries. We are supposed to confront the complexities of community displacement and learn some new meanings of “frontier.” Unfortunately, by the time we get there the town has packed up and all that’s left is a crew of professional evacuators confronting the bonkers remnants of the population. There’s no sense of the destruction of community, because there’s no sense of what the community was. You’re supposed to piece its history together from some black and white Viewmaster slides and a 1950s country music soundtrack.
The real story is less rich and a lot more confusing. James Woods plays O’Brien, a glum evictor who’s just received the final notice to disinter his wife lest she end up underwater like everything else. O’Brien makes a lot of remarks to his son about “the smell of death,” and it is no surprise that the son is uncooperative. The coffin-moving project troubles O’Brien throughout the movie, and he ends up crying about it in an outhouse that looks suspiciously like a confessional.
Meanwhile, Nick Nolte as Father Harlan is caring for little Irwin, a sick boy whose parents have abandoned him. There are some affecting scenes, as when the priest preaches the last sermon to his congregation, and when he surreptitiously measures little Irwin for his coffin. You can see he’s exhausted from a lifetime spent serving others. Unfortunately, Nolte has a heart to heart with a black grave digger about Irwin’s inevitable death. He says something like, “I love my church, but I’ve lost my faith.” This movie wouldn’t go in for clichés, would it?
On another parallel track, and there are a lot of them, a foursome of angels is camped out in a frame house full of stuff you’d like to see appraised on the Antiques Road Show. Little Irwin’s spirit visits them, trying to convince them he’s their comrade. The angels are dressed in Edwardian costumes, except for Flower Hercules, played by Daryl Hannah, who is wearing an Elizabethan ruched shirt and a short black leather jerkin. The reason for this seems to be so we can glimpse Hannah’s remarkable legs, which extend until next Saturday. Flower Hercules badly wants a child to join the angel band. So, they examine Irwin, and the scars where his halo and wings were removed, and do some lengthy forensic work on the feathers that keep growing behind his ears, but they don’t believe him. Meanwhile (another meanwhile), some kind of baboon on stilts has escaped from the stage set of “The Lion King,” and is wandering the Montana badlands.
We are in a swamp of ferocious allegory here, but allegories are supposed be in relation to something. The baboon and the dam and the angel wings and everything else are allegories of nothing much. The cemetery seems to stand for itself.
Obviously, “Northfork” is not supposed to be plausible, it is supposed to make you think and wonder. And so I did. I wondered: why is Daryl Hannah wearing a nylon wig? Why is a black safety pin dangling near the top of her ear? Why did Nick Nolte agree to be in this mess? Did I leave the oven on? And I thought: I would rather be at a PTA meeting. Yes, it really makes you think and wonder.
“Northfork” underscores a few important things. First, just because Nick Nolte is in a movie doesn’t mean it will be good. Sad, but true. Second, phone the theater before leaving home. Finally, if you’re going to go to a bad movie, you should have the courage of your convictions and go to a really BAD movie. See an Adam Sandler movie, or “Blue Velvet,” or one where the dogs and cats talk. Sit back and glory in the experience, and laugh. It will put some oxygen in your bloodstream. Don’t waste your time with a bad movie that’s pretending it’s a deep movie. No one laughed during the entire hour and 43 minutes of Northfork. They were afraid to.
SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.