North Country is a fictionalized account of a real event – one that marked a sea change for every business in America. Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a young Minnesotan who is married to an unemployed, abusive jerk. After a particularly nasty beating, she puts her two children in the truck and leaves. There’s only one place to go: the home of her parents, Alice (Sissy Spacek) and Hank (Richard Jenkins). Her father has never forgiven her for getting pregnant as a teenager. When she shows up all battered and bruised, he assumes that her husband caught her with another man. It’s clear that she will need to get a job and find her own living arrangements as soon as possible.
Josey’s friend Glory (Frances McDormand) drives a truck for the local iron mine – a place that employs many of the town’s men, including Hank. The pay is good, but the men don’t exactly approve of women working amongst them. Nevertheless, she gets a job there, much to the dismay of her father, who feels this brings “shame” to the family. It’s a paycheck, though, and Josey is determined to support herself and her kids. Upon arriving, she discovers that one of her male coworkers is Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), a former high school friend turned enemy. Although she has never divulged the identity of her oldest child’s father, Bobby is commonly believed to be the one. He is excited to see his teenage crush again and almost immediately starts putting the moves on her in the form of “making up.”
He is not the only one to engage in such behavior. The women of the mine are subjected to constant unwanted attention from the men. The harassment starts off with sexual jokes, then progresses to offensive comments and juvenile pranks. There are also some physical advances made, including blatant groping. Josey attempts to complain to her supervisor, but he is less than empathetic. In fact, once Josey complains, the level of harassment toward all the women is kicked up several notches. In one scene, the men scrawl sexist epithets on the walls of the women’s locker room – in feces. It gets even worse.
After trying unsuccessfully to bring her concerns to the owner of the mines, Josey feels helpless. Then she sees TV footage of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. (The story takes place in 1989.) Suddenly she feels empowered to take legal action. Glory’s friend Bill White (Woody Harrelson) is a New York lawyer who has recently retreated to Minnesota after a painful divorce. He agrees to take on the case as a class action suit, but the judge wants at least three plaintiffs. It’s up to Josey to convince her reluctant female coworkers that they could actually win. This is easier said than done.
North Country does a brilliant job of putting you in the world of the miners. And it is indeed another world. The value system held by these characters is beyond antiquated: it’s almost barbaric. The women are expected to stay home, raise children, and not embarrass their men. The common thinking is that they don’t belong in the mines. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it should stay. Amazingly, it isn’t just the men who hold these beliefs. Most of Josey’s female coworkers don’t support her fight because they don’t want to rock the boat. They need their jobs and they’re willing to put up with some grief in order to remain employed. Principles take a back seat to putting food on the table. That’s one of the most interesting dynamics of the film; Josey has to stand up against the woman almost as strongly as she does against the men.
The acting here is first-rate, and nowhere is that more evident than in the tense Union meeting scene. Josey, having already initiated legal action against the company, steps up to the microphone to address her colleagues, all of whom are virtually calling for blood. Theron beautifully conveys Josey’s combination of bravery and terror in front of the angry mob. Richard Jenkins (a character actor you will immediately recognize even if you don’t know his name) does equally fine work in the scene, showing how Hank is appalled by his daughter’s treatment at the hands of his friends, even though he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her on the issue. Any great movie has at least one scene that just rivets you with the way the performances, the story, and the artistic vision come together. In North Country, this is that scene; several others are just as good.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and cinematographer Chris Menges set the stage perfectly. They capture the dark, dreary atmosphere of the mines. The place feels like it exists on its own separate planet. At some level, you can understand how day after day spent in that environment would take a little part of everyone’s soul. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding why this sexual harassment occurs. Yes, it’s partially an outdated value system, but it’s also an example of groupthink. All the men do it, so they all assume it’s okay. They brush it off as harmless “kidding around,” unaware of any damage they might be doing. The harassment takes on a life of its own and can’t stop until someone like Josey comes along to change it. She breaks out of the groupthink, sees the larger picture, and decides to change things. Of course, sexual harassment still occurs, but women today have much more legal recourse. The female characters in this movie operate in a situation where men make all the rules and, more disturbingly, they protect their own relentlessly. There is no protection for the women.
Like the racial drama Crash, North Country is a movie that deals with a very topical, hot button issue. However, neither film loses sight of its ability to entertain. North Country works as a portrayal of social injustice, yet it also works as a compelling character portrait. It has great, Oscar-worthy performances from the entire cast and the story contains one emotional, involving scene after another. (The arc between Josey and her father is particularly rewarding.) This is one of the best and most powerful pictures of the year.
( out of four)
North Country is rated R for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat