Hippo Manchester
October 27, 2005

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North Country (R)
by Amy Diaz   adiaz@hippopress.com

Charlize Theron dons another trailer-chic hairdo and lower-class accent in a bid for Oscar with North Country, the based-on-a-true-story tale of a single mom enduring sexual harassment in the iron mines of northern Minnesota.

Josey Aimes (Theron) is the most wounded of all wounded animals — fleeing an abusive husband with her two children (at least one of whom is from another man), she arrives at her gray hometown in a frigid Minnesota to meet only her mother’s quiet urgings that she return to her husband and her father’s more obvious disapproval. Her unsympathetic father and violent husband aren’t the first men in her life who have wronged her — over the course of the movie we see Josey suffer all sorts of betrayals from men. It therefore should not surprise her too much when the men of her hometown react with astounding hatred when Josey signs up to be one of the small number of women who work at the iron mine. She’s encouraged by old-friend Glory (Francis McDormand), a union rep at the mine, and by the considerable step-up in living standards that the mine offers Josey and her two kids. Hard physical labor is a reasonable price to pay for her own home, her first ever, and a reasonably good life for her kids.

Well, a good life financially, that is. Socially, Josey and her children are pelted with scorn and insults because of her occupation. The men see the female employees as job-stealing interlopers. The town’s other women see the female ironworkers as job-stealing interlopers and as potential husband-stealing interlopers.

As humiliating as the town’s reaction to Josey’s job is, however, the reaction of the other miners is far worse. They mock their female colleagues constantly and with a high-school-like level of crudeness and cruelty. Sex toys in lunchboxes, semen in the female lockers, a steady stream of verbal insults and an ever-present sense rape isn’t just possible but would be a crime with little likelihood of receiving justice.

After trying to “take it like a man,” Josey decides these tortures need to stop. But not only is management openly hostile to her complaints, her fellow female miners want nothing to do with her complaints or her. Good thing Bill (Woody Harrelson), a big-city lawyer, picked this time to return to his hometown and agree to be the guide for Josey’s trailblazing case.

Early scenes of the women’s initiation to the mine and of the rigid traditionalist opinion of Josey’s parents and the townsfolk inspire a fiery rage and smoldering hatred. The men’s fear over Josey’s attempt to do what they can do seem palpable, as though her example of a woman who can make their money and provide for families the same as they do diminishes their worth. (Which, considering the despicable character of some of these men, I suppose it does. If these violent, ignorant, cruel creatures are not necessary for their wives’ and children’s financial survival, why would any of their families want them around?) Their attempts to break the will of the women in their midst seems to go against basic American principles of personal responsibility and improvement — you’d think these descendents of Scandinavian immigrants would cheer Josey’s self-reliance, not seek to destroy it. 

Unfortunately, after building up this head of truly righteous anger, the movie just lets it burn out. We get no hard-fought courtroom battles. We get no “a-ha” moment of finding new use for an established legal precedent. Our flames of anger stoked by the film’s first hour or so are abruptly put out by a soggy sob story that dominates the movie’s final act. It is Josey’s victimhood, the movie seems to say, not the inherent rightness of her cause, that finally gives the female workers justice. 

North Country is a movie that tells us it is an important story about important issues but doesn’t really go to great pains to show us these things. Here, the movie says, here are some examples of men being jerks, some examples of women being noble, now trust us that this all matters. The movie feels rushed at times (like the trial, which in real life dragged on for years) and pointlessly slow at others. The story feels half-baked and in need of some serious re-writing. Hey, it’s a fictionalized version of the real struggles of women at the Eveleth Mines anyway, so why not make some of that fiction a compelling movie?