Before the Flood
Northfork is full of forlorn characters and bleak landscapes. In a film about alienation, which opens this weekend at the Roxy, sets, props and costumes are rendered only in shades of gray. This desaturated color adds to the profound sense of exhaustion.
Ultimately, though, the movie can't really support the weighty symbolism in its story about a hydroelectric dam scheduled to flood a small Montana town off the map. Director Michael Polish, who co-wrote the script with his brother Mark, uses this scenario to preach a muddled Christian message with New Age flourishes.
Although Northfork and its few remaining inhabitants appear to be Dustbowl-ravaged victims of the Great Depression, the time frame is actually the mid-1950s. During that era Ronald Reagan hosted TV's "General Electric Theater," reminding the nation every Sunday night that "progress is our most important product." Amen.
The movie's progress-minded "Evacuation Committee" is composed of six men in fedoras and black trenchcoats hired to clear the land of people. They have been promised prime lakefront property that will be created by the deluge. Actors James Woods, Peter Coyote and Mark Polish play some of the enforcers charged with cajoling or threatening homeowners who refuse to leave. Among the holdouts is a fellow living in an ark with two wives but no animals -- a little Noah joke.
The religious imagery extends to Irwin, a sickly boy played by Duel Farnes. He has either a speech impediment or a vaguely foreign accent that makes his dialogue difficult to understand. An orphan abandoned by his adoptive parents, the kid fancies himself an angel. He's on a mystic quest akin to that in The Little Prince, the Saint-Exupery book with a similar regard for aviation. Nick Nolte plays his caregiver, a weather-beaten priest.
As Irwin hovers near death, his melancholy spirit visits a ramshackle house populated by four argumentative supernatural beings with a vintage airplane. Daryl Hannah is the dual-gendered Flower Hercules, the group's most nurturing member. Anthony Edwards does an odd turn as an almost blind figure sporting an eclectic collection of eyeglasses and prosthetic arms. There's also a mute teen in a 10-gallon hat (Ben Foster) and an effete, sardonic Brit called Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs).
Little Irwin shows this motley crew the scars on his back to prove he once had wings that were surgically removed by disapproving humans. For reasons the movie never quite explains, the evacuators carry around several sets of downy white wings for bribing residents reluctant to relocate. The ploy rarely works. One cantankerous local nails his shoes to the porch in a desperate last stand, keeping the unwelcome visitors at bay with a shotgun.
An actor with an intrinsically sour manner, Woods nonetheless brings some urgency to the role of an enforcer when he worries that his dead wife's coffin might wash up when floodwaters submerge the town cemetery. Unfortunately, this pang of conscience is allowed to go over the top as the character sobs in a rickety outhouse.
The Polish siblings, who are 32-year-old identical twins, have two previous movies under their filmmaker belts. Jackpot, released in 2001, explores the pathos inherent in a karaoke lifestyle. In 1999's Twin Falls Idaho, they portray conjoined brothers befriended by a good-hearted hooker.
Northfork is intended as the final chapter in their American heartland trilogy. The film's socioeconomic message -- that ruthless capitalism can overwhelm community -- may not be subtle, yet it's almost obscured by self-conscious surrealism.
M. David Mullen's stunning cinematography periodically rescues the picture from a surfeit of formulaic edginess. He manages to introduce into an otherwise tiresome gray-on-gray landscape the occasional wonderful image, including a pasture viewed through the missing back door of a church with just a handful of worshippers.
This visual aplomb is replaced by kitsch every time the camera conveys a condescending fascination with supposed freaks of nature. The evacuation team enters a diner where the wrinkled waitress appears to have stumbled out of a David Lynch nightmare. She croaks that the only item on the menu is chicken broth.
The conversation, however, veers into Quentin Tarantino territory as the guys debate the meaning of an old song and chitchat with a postmodern wink.
"I heard that in California they serve you a cheeseburger and a soda in two minutes flat," one of them says.
"Wow," muses another, clearly pleased that progress is indeed our most important product. "That's fast food."
Wow, that's a derivative screenplay.