With its uncovered graves exposed like open wounds, its gutted buildings revealing more outside than inside and its outhouses acting as middle-of-nowhere confessionals, Northfork has become a ghost town. Even its remaining residents have the look of specters in exile, dazed apparitions just waiting for God or the government to tell them which path to take. The film recalls most of all the work of comic-book author Neil Gaiman, specifically his Sandman series, in which the parallel universes of dream and waking exist in the same place, in the same moment, sometimes in the same person. Northfork's characters are like refugees from the paneled page: There's the Evacuation Committee, six men in black hats and black trench coats (that flutter like capes) who drive shiny black Fords; Father Hardin, a haggard man of God left behind to tend to a dying boy; and a family of garishly costumed angels sent to retrieve one of their lost, left-behind kin.
It's 1955, and as the movie opens, what remains of the town is either holding its ground or heading for higher ground. These folks, descendants of the pioneers who settled the land in 1776, or perhaps kin to the angels rumored to have once flown in the Northfork sky, are stubborn buggers, more likely to fight for than take flight from what's been theirs for centuries. There's Mr. Stalling (Marshall Bell) who lives in a home built to resemble an ark and keeps two Mrs. Stallings, along with a few animal heads mounted on his walls. And there's the young couple who screw and screw while everyone else skips town. Two members of the state-commissioned Evacuation Committee sent to collect the couple know they'll be the toughest to move, because they drive brand-new Chevrolets in the middle of Ford country, and Chevy people are stubborn people.
Also standing their ground, or maybe just floating a few inches above it, are four strangers just come to Northfork in search of a missing relative. They're a band of eccentric angels: a drunken, surly Brit who goes by the name Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); a mute cowboy in a Nudie suit, called Cod (Ben Foster); a nearly blind art appraiser with interchangeable hands made of wood and porcelain named Happy (Anthony Edwards); and a bewigged androgyne named Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah). These freaky four seek The Unknown Angel and refuse to acknowledge that who they're looking for may be a dying child named Irwin (Duel Farnes, a remarkable newcomer), abandoned by his cowardly parents who insist they can't escape with such dead weight.
Father Harlan (Nick Nolte, wearing his Hulk hair) tries to keep the boy alive, or out of pain; he even tries to find the boy a new family, parents called Hope (played, for a second, by Kyle MacLachlan and Michele Hicks). Irwin wants only to escape with the angels he visits in his fever dreams. Or are they dreams? The Polish brothers suggest otherwise: The Evacuation Committee offers as incentive a pair of enormous wings, said to have been clipped from young angels. "There's nothing fowl about these wings," promises Willis O'Brien (Mark Polish), paired with his father, Walter (James Woods), to rustle the stragglers. Walter and Willis and their fellow committee members might even be angels; the white feathers in their black caps suggest they, too, are messengers of God.
It takes a while to find a way into Northfork. It begins slowly, softly, with dreamlike images meant to disorient, including that of a coffin floating to the surface of the coming flood; we're knocked off our feet and land right on our heads. (If you think the film looks a little washed out, it does: The brothers wanted to shoot in black and white but ended up coloring everything in various shades of gray, down to the ketchup.) But after a while, we're comfortable in the Polish brothers' world, so caught up in the dreaminess of it we stop worrying about what's "real" and what's "imagined," what's living and what's quite dead. Northfork may be doomed, but the Polish brothers and cinematographer M. David Mullen (who worked with the brothers on their previous features, Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot) make the place feel like heaven on earth.
"We are all angels," says Father Harlan early on. "It is what we do with our wings that separate us." At a time when children are being force-fed Happy Meals masquerading as movies, here's the antidote: a fairy tale about a brave child trapped in a fragile body who is not at all afraid of what lies ahead -- or above. And he's surrounded by adults who love him not for what he might be (an angel) but for what he is, a child.