Frankly, I didn't get it.
Maybe I just wasn't mentally energetic enough for it last night, because I could tell that there was more there than I was picking up, but one of a couple of things must've been going on. Either I'm too much of a rube to undertand all that thar simbullism, or they packed it with too much and I overloaded.
The story goes that the town of Northfork, Montana is about to be buried beneath a lake when the new dam starts working. Most of the town has left, but there are a few stragglers still hanging around. So, the state has sent in three two-man teams of Evacuators to clear the rest of them out. One of the people who needs evacuating is a young orphan named Irwin who's too sick to survive a journey to anywhere else. Some others are a quartet of weirdos who may or may not be angels looking for one of their own who's gone missing.
Angel symbolism is all over the place in this movie. Nick Nolte, the local priest who's stayed behind to care for Irwin, constantly refers to the boy as an angel. And Irwin seems to genuinely believe it. He's got surgical-looking scars on his back and on his temples where he claims his wings and halo were removed.
While trying to talk a religious man (who intends to ride out the flood in a homemade ark) into leaving, one of the Evacuators (played by James Woods) offers to give him a pair of cut-off angel wings if he'll comply. Then there are the small, white feathers that the Evacuators all wear in their hat bands. See, there's probably something angelic about the Evacuators' mission to rescue the Northfork stragglers, but how far are we supposed to carry the analogy? They're doing the job for the promise of some property by the new lake, so does that selfishness figure into the comparison? Is that why their feathers are small? And what do we make of the sub-plot in which James Woods has to decide whether or not to dig up and move the remains of his wife, which are buried in Northfork? I don't know, and it makes my head hurt to figure out.
And what of the weirdos? Are they real? Are they angels? Are they -- as Roger Ebert suggests -- merely constructs of Irwin's imagination? If so, how is it possible for James Woods to briefly see them in one scene? Is Irwin really an angel, or just a sick boy trying to cope with loneliness and the fact that he's dying? Why does one of the weirdos (Anthony Edwards) not have any hands? What's that all about? Why is he blind? What's up with the strange glasses that he wears that help him to read? Why is another weirdo mute? Why is that mute one named "Cod?" Is it coincidence that "Cod" sounds a lot like "God?" Why does Cod write in gibberish that can only be translated by the blind Anthony Edwards? Is there a "blind oracle" thing going on here? Why is Darryl Hannah's weirdo androgynous? Is that an angelic thing, or something else? None of the other weirdos are androgynous, so it can't be an angelic thing, right? Or is she the only angel? Where did James Woods get those cut-off angel wings he carries around in his trunk? Gahhhhh!
I have one good thing to say about Northfork. Nick Nolte's performance of the priest who cares for a boy who no one else will love, is heartbreaking. Especially as the father of a young boy myself, it tore me up to watch Nolte trying everything in his meager power to help Irwin. But that story could've been told much differently and much more effectively if it weren't hindered by all the other nonsense in the film.