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Northfork, by the young twin-brother filmmaking team of Mark and Michael Polish, is a doggedly quirky, occasionally beautiful, and ultimately leaden piece of storytellingThe Road to Perdition as directed by David Lynch. Set in 1955, it takes place in a small Montana town that was founded in 1776 and is slated, as the film opens, to be flooded within 48 hours by a massive dam that has just been completed nearby.
At the center of the story are six men who’ve been hired to evacuate Northfork’s residents before the flooding begins. Each of the six, if he’s able to reach his quota of 65 safely relocated households, is set to be rewarded with an acre-and-a-half of newly created “lakefront property.” The menplayed by actors including James Woods, Peter Coyote, and Northfork co-scripter Mark Polish himselfdress entirely in black and white: black hats, black overcoats, black suits, white shirts, and black ties. Working in pairs, they drive identical humpbacked black Fords to visit the last few houses whose owners have yet to leave. And they speak with identically flat and emotionless voices, whether they’re being shot at or simply trying to order food in a diner.
Those sticking around until Northfork’s watery end include lovers who are too busy taking each other’s clothes off to pack up and a man who, with his pair of wives, has turned his house into an ark that he hopes will withstand the coming flood. They’re joined by the local priest, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte, speaking from start to finish from behind a bushy beard in a barely audible whisper), and his orphanage’s last occupant, Irwin (Duel Farnes), who drifts in and out of high-fevered consciousness. The boy, who believes he was born an angel, has scabs on both temples and a pair of long arcs across his back; when prospective parents come by to see about adopting him, Father Harlan, worried they’ll be scared off, allows them only to look at him through a window and make a decision about him from afar.
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Laid in a sort of gauze on top of that part of the plot is the story of four apparent angels who get most of the script’s archest, most self-satisfied lineswhich is saying something. The group is led by Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) and includes Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah, looking as if she’d been going to Mickey Rourke’s plastic surgeon), Happy (Anthony Edwards, giving another twist to a career that has so far included both ER and Revenge of the Nerds), and a mute called Cod (Ben Foster). (I kept thinking the mute is named God, which I’m pretty sure is a confusion intended by the filmmakers.) All in all, it’s not a bad premise: capturing a place in the last few days of its transition from town to ghost town, and throwing in a few ghostly characters for good measure.
Along with cinematographer M. David Mullen, the Polishes give the Montana landscape a monochromatic intensity, in shots so leached of color that Northfork often looks black-and-white. But the brothers have a preference for opaque storytelling that borders on the obstinate. This is a movie so carefully controlled and so slowly plotted that it winds up looking like an experimental number choreographed for an aging and arthritic dance troupe. The filmmakers even manage to turn Northfork’s one violent incident, in which one of the houses the agents visit turns out to shelter a very angry man with a shotgun, into a kind of slow-motion parody: In the end, both the shooter and his two targets, hiding at the rear bumper of their Ford, wind up falling asleep.
The victims of the progress represented by the dam, the movie suggests, are variety, diversity, and the sort of faith that borders on zealousness. The men in black are clearly meant to symbolize some boring, homogenizing force: industry, perhaps, or technology, or conformity. Indeed, the whole film has seemingly been designed by the Polishes as a metaphor for their own place in the movie-making system. After debuting with the stylish but plodding Twin Falls Idaho, in which they starred as a pair of Siamese twins, and following that up with the equally outsiderish Jackpot, the Polishes must see themselves as one of the few households holding out against the inexorable rush of Hollywood product.
It would help, though, if their work had even a shred of the quirky, heartening sense of humor that marks the productions of those other quixotic American filmmaking brothers the Polishes clearly reverethe Coens. It would also help if, in Northfork, the Polishes had produced a movie that made you believe they actually have the kind of talent that’s worth special protectionworth shepherding, as it were, to some patch of land above the flood plain. In this particular case, however, it’s Mark and Michael themselves who have brought more colorless monotony into the world.
According to a writer who profiled him earlier this year, Rome-born director Matteo Garrone “is reluctant to admit that he admires Fellini.” “Too many Italian directors have fallen into the trap of imitating Fellini,” Garrone told his interviewer. “The important thing for a filmmaker is the individual gaze, something original. That can’t be imitated.”
But let’s check the evidence. The protagonist of Garrone’s latest movie, The Embalmer, is a dwarf with a larger-than-life personalitya gay (but closeted) taxidermist who dresses like a Las Vegas lounge singer circa 1974, has some shady connections to the mafia, and lusts after his 20-year-old assistant. The film was shot in the murkiest possible light, and all the best scenes take place in sleazy motel rooms at 4 in the morning, some featuring prostitutes who may be transvestites. (With that lighting, it’s pretty tough to tell.) I think it’s safe to say that Garrone has seen Roma once or twice.
But the director, who is 35, has no reason to be feeling any anxiety about that influence. The Embalmer, his fourth full-length feature, is one of the most compelling, if also one of the oddest, films to appear this year. In the opening scene, the dwarf, Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), meets strapping young Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) at the zoo and convinces him to leave his job at a restaurant to work at Peppino’s embalming workshop, whose products include everything from shrews to rhinos.
The rest of the story is an unlikely love affair, mostly platonic. Peppino, who doesn’t seem to have come out even to himself, pines for Valerio. He convinces the younger man to move in with him, dangling money as a lure. He sets up double dates in hopes of producing a chaotic foursome. He begins wearing yards of polyester, reveling in lawlessness, and drinking more and more. Mahieux manages to give complexity to a performance that might easily have turned to caricature, and Garrone and his two co-writers, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, provide Peppino with a seemingly endless number of loutish moments. All the same, it’s difficult not to hope he gets the guy.
Some have criticized The Embalmer for being too timid in its depiction of homosexuality, and it’s true that the scene in which Peppino gets a very drunk Valerio into bed and slides his clothes off turns suddenly chaste and ends abruptly. But I wound up appreciating the sense of mystery the encounter produces. It gives the remainder of the narrativeValerio finds a girlfriend, moves away, and tries to resist his old boss’s entreaties to return to their former hedonisma certain emotional unpredictability. But forget the story. What makes The Embalmer so successful is simply the character of Peppino, who is almost impossible to shake from your memory. He’s a Hobbsian antihero for a new generation: nasty, brutish, and short. CP