This film is the last of the Polish brothers trilogy of films about rural small town America (see Jackpot and Twin Falls, Idaho). In the film, Northfork is a small rural town that has been evacuated (except for a few holdouts) to make way for a dam. A team of six men, working in pairs, have been given a contract that will reward each of them with prime waterfront acreage if they can clear 65 households and the story begins with the pairs working on the very last households. James Woods and Mark Polish play one of the pairs as a father-son team named Walter and Willis O'Brien. The O'Briens literally have a secret buried in Northfork; Patricia O'Brien, wife and mother to Walter and willis, respectively, was buried in the Northfork cemetery and they have not yet evacuated her coffin. The O'Brien's struggle to move the last residents of the town parallels Walter's own struggle to accept Patricia's death. When Northfork is cleared, Walter is finally able to face the reality of his wife's death by digging up and moving her coffin.
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A second story line concerns Irwin (Duel Farnes), an orphan that has been adopted from Northfork's Halo Home, run by Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), only to be returned to the now empty orphanage because he is dying. The film often portrays Irwin's dreams, which are peopled by the few symbols of his existence: Cup of Tea, Flower Hercules (based on his comic book and the flower Father Harlan places on Irwin's nightstand), Cod (the cod liver oil he has to take) and Happy, a reader with fantastical glasses and interchangeable wooden hands (there is a wooden hand vase holding the flower, and perhaps "Happy" represents Irwin when he was able to see and experience the world). These dream characters are looking for the "unknown angel." Irwin tells them he is the one they're looking for and asks them to take him on a journey of a 1,000 miles. It's all very symbolic, as Halo Home had advertised to prospective parents that they could "spend an afternoon with an angel" when they came to meet the orphans.
In the end, Irwin gets to accompany his dream characters on an even farther journey; he dies, becoming the angel they were seeking.