On Watching Northfork

There’s a risk in going back to watch movies you loved years ago. I call it the “Doc Savage  Effect.” Despite the wounds of previous nostalgia-fueled viewing still being surprisingly strong, when clearing out my DVDs, I finally decided it was time to re-watch Northfork  before I sent it on to find another home.

And, disinterested reader, it’s as good as I remembered it. And for that, I am grateful.

One thing has changed since my last view. The once-renowned and now a little less renowned James Woods has changed from an impressive lead/character actor to a pantomime Twitter villain. Still, I loved him in this. I’ve loved him in lots of movies. I’m not going to let his late-stage move to the angry Right take away from some of American cinema’s great performances. He brings heart and humanity to his role as a widower trying to do the right thing, once he’s worked out what the right thing actually is. If you can separate his work from his thoughts on modern America, I recommend it as a strategy.

Northfork is a movie of tone, of mood, of long shots of wide expanses of flat American wilderness, spotted with occasional weather-beaten houses and even an ark (it’s complicated). It’s a place I long to fall into, spend some time among the wilderness, the quiet where each road has only one car driving on it; each house exists within a space where no other signs of humanity can be seen.

As long as they can guarantee that there’s a strong broadband service and a grocery store, just out of sight, that delivers just exactly what I like to eat, I’d pack my bags now.

And that’s one of the undeniable pleasures of movies that Northfork gets just right. It lets me long for something I don’t really want, for the amount of time the movie runs, and then lets me go. And that longing is a strange, visual pleasure that I don’t think comes from any other artform.

The tone and the mood are what I love most about Northfork. But, on re-watching, I was grateful that the Polish brothers had been kind enough to create a movie just for me. Retro-Americana with some beautiful old cars; stylish men in stylish hats; Nick Nolte doing a more-than-decent Tom Waits impression (or is Tom Waits now a Nick Nolte tribute act?); mythical-religious references; graveyards; and that as-previously-noted wilderness. All shot with a sepia glow that gives everything a sheen of fairytale.

The script is fun and engaging; the main characters have just enough detail to be interesting. But what triumphs in the time you’re watching is the sheer originality of what happens onscreen. By combining almost stock ’50s lawmen with an at-times surreal angels-and-old-style-religion sensibility, the movie creates something new, interesting, and unforgettable. There are shots here that belong in the Louvre.

There is enough darkness in the course of the movie to make sure it never quite falls into whimsy. There’s a particular shot of what look like railroad spikes that was especially striking. You’ll know it when you see it.

The sum of its parts is a movie that I have fallen in love with once again. And, if you get the chance, I’d recommend you take it. Brew some coffee, get a slice of cake, turn down the lights, and give yourself over for a couple of hours to something unique and compelling.

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