Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson in North Country.
North Country, while proving that Charlize Theron's performance in Monster was no fluke, is far too much of a go-for-the-heartstrings type of movie. Apart from its star power, you could be forgiven for thinking that you're watching a made for TV movie of the week. The story is set in 1989 and is inspired by real events, but this is clearly real events as seen through the Hollywood lens of melodrama.
Theron plays Josey Aimes, an abused wife who leaves her husband and moves back to her hometown in Minnesota where she takes a job working in a mine. While the pay is good, she and her fellow female employees are forced to endure an almost non-stop barrage of harassment by the men who work there. When the harassment culminates in an assault upon her, she decides, inspired by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case, to sue the mine for Sexual Harassment.
Over the course of the trial, Josey's sexual history is dragged over the coals and adding to the melodrama, we learn one major secret about her past. As her lawyer (Harrelson) puts it, the defense uses the “Nuts or sluts" ploy, meaning that they want the judge to think that she's either crazy so she made it up or that she's a slut and asked for it.
My biggest complaint about this movie is the way in which it depicts nearly every man in it as a total asshole. There are only two decent guys in the whole story; Harrelson's lawyer and Kyle (Sean Bean), the husband of Josey's best friend. Every man who works at the mine is either a wimp or a chauvinist to the millionth degree. Josey's husband beats her, her father is ashamed of her, her son hates her, her boss belittles her and her co-workers are just complete bastards. I'm sure that in reality there had to have been at least some decent guys working at the mine.
I also had trouble with the ending of the movie. The outcome of the trial is obviously never in doubt, but the way in which that outcome is reached is a little over the top, as most trials are in movies. The big climax comes when other workers at the trial stand up with Josey and admit that they've been harassed, including Josey's best friend Glory, who (I kid you not) is dying of Lou Gherig's disease and has to be wheeled into the courtroom in a wheelchair.
To her credit, Theron handles the melodrama well. As she did in Monster, although not nearly to the same degree, she plays down her glamorous image. While the movie is set in the 80s, the costumes are all flannel and denim so she is spared the fashion excess of that decade, although she does sport a rather unfortunate haircut from the times.
Fellow Oscar winners McDormand and Spacek both have fairly small supporting roles, but the movie is clearly a spotlight for Theron and her repeat Oscar hopes. She does give an award worthy performance, but the movie itself doesn't live up to her example.
Charlize Theron and Jeremy Renner in North Country.
Something did not feel right about this movie as I watched it. Like Scott, I was a bit baffled by how all of the men at the mine could do so many disgusting stuff to the women. The movie shows everything happening over the course of a few months.
The case this movie is based on is that of Lois E. Jenson suing her employer for sexual harassment. She worked at the mine for 9 years before making an official complaint. She worked for the mine for another 8 years before she quit. The final hearing on the issue was not complete until another dozen years after that, 2 decades after her initial complaint. The crap that happens in the movie would seem more realistic spread over the course of many years, instead of days.
Several different times in the movie they have the Clarence Thomas hearings playing on a television. They never show Thomas, just Anita Hill. This movie tries to use the hearings to make a point about sexual harassment in the workplace. As usual, Hollywood does not tell the entire truth.
Anita Hill's entire complaint on Thomas was that he talked about sex and sexual issues around her, making her feel uncomfortable. She never complained about it until he was about to be confirmed as a conservative judge. Even after he allegedly talked about sex with her, she volunteered to change jobs with him when he got a new one. When he went on an overnight trip to make a speech, she volunteered to go along. She admits to both of these things in her testimony. In his, Thomas denies the sexual talk. There were no witnesses to corroborate her story. He was never found guilty of any wrong doing with her, and was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Bill even refers to the hearings when describing how Josey's trial would likely go. His point is that they would try to make her look bad just as they were trying to make Hill look bad. In real life, Hill was put on the stand to try and make Thomas look bad.
North Country tries far too hard to emotionally manipulate the audience. Josey left her husband because he was abusing her. She got sexually harassed and assaulted at her job. As a last minute effort to gain your pity, we discover that Josey was raped in highschool. She is either a very unlucky woman, or an asshole magnet.
This film is trying so hard to make a point about sexual harassment that it does not know when to stop. From start to finish we are supposed to pity Josey and hate everyone else who works at the mine. The only argument made for the guy's hatred is that the women took jobs away from men. Did they get the jobs to fill a quota? If so, that would explain some of the attitude. The movie never attempts to show the issue from the men's perspective. It would have made for a much better film if they had.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (2005)