Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is bruised and tearful. Bloodied once again by her husband’s abuse, she finally decides, at the start of North Country, to load her two horrified kids into the pickup and head on down the road. Her teenaged son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) looks both hopeful and doubtful: “We’re not coming back, right?” Right. And with that, Josey relocates her family to the last place she ever wanted to go, her parents’ home in Northern Minnesota. Her mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) looks sad and her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), makes his own sense of her black eye: “He catch you with another man? That why he laid hands on you?”
North Country is like that: Josey is subjected to one travail after another. In the months that follow, unable even to start saving for her own place on the tips she makes at the diner, she agrees to try working down at the mine, where her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) makes a decent living. Glory also has a decent support system at home, as her husband Kyle (Sean Bean) appears to be the single non-Neanderthal in town. As soon as she signs up, Josey — “always such a pretty girl” — faces ridicule and rebuke from her male coworkers, their wives, and the men who’ve hired her. Even her dad resents her doing a “man’s work” and especially, taking a “man’s place” in what the limited local economy.
Josey and Glory (who’s a union rep, to boot) aren’t the only women workers, but the others — including the accurately named Big Betty (Rusty Schwimmer) and dour Peg (Jillian Armenante) — have more or less resigned themselves to the routine. “We can take any crap they dish out, can’t we?” sniffs Glory. Still, the women (excepting Glory) blame Josey for the increase in abuse, which the film shows in grotesque detail: a former high school classmate, Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), slams her around in a mine shaft, a group of men overturn a PortAJohn with a woman inside, then smear the women’s locker room with feces, someone else leaves semen inside a woman’s locker. Childish, crude, and horrific, these tactics only gird Josey’s fury and resistance, though this means she’s taking her family along for part of the ride (Sammy especially suffers from hearing his mom called a “whore” in public).
As the film more or less locks you into Josey’s perspective, it appears that even the bleak environment (effected by Chris Menges’ splendid grey imagery) denotes her perpetual exhaustion. And the sheer weight of her burden is emphasized by director Niki (Whale Rider) Caro’s melodramatic inflections: extended takes of pained faces, scenes showcasing family tensions, and plaintive Bob Dylan sound track music all make plain Josey’s heavy burden.
Such Lifetime channelish storytelling typically paints women as victims and men as brutes, save for Kyle and Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a onetime local hockey star who moved to New York to become a big deal lawyer, now returned for a reason of his own, but conveniently positioned to help Josey with her lawsuit. Courtroom scenes appear throughout the film, framing her workplace experiences (and her rape as a high school student) as forceful flashbacks. That is, the legal case, even as it obviously has broader ramifications, is very personal. Just so, the film structures it as a series of betrayals, devastations, and grandstand plays (these last by Bill, whose physical grace in the courtroom seems to recall his days on the ice).
In fact, North Country is based on one of those landmark court cases that inspire moviemakers’ interest. This much is indicated by the cited source, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book, Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. The actual case was brought against a Minnesota mining company in 1989, at the start of Bill Clinton’s second term (here he’s excoriated by a miner for “flooding the market with cheap steel,” thus undermining the industry and exacerbating the male miners’ frustrations (as “their” precious jobs went to women). Trying to contextualize, maybe even rationalize, Hank’s anger and Josey’s abuse, Alice laments, “A man needs a job.” Joesy sees a two fold problem here: she needs a job too, and she does not need to be beaten by men who don’t have them (or suffer other deficiencies).
Along with this gesture toward context, Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman also make a change in the timeframe, granting Josey access to the 1991 Hill- Thomas hearings, visible repeatedly on kitchen tvs, serving as Exhibit A in Josey’s ongoing low-key tiffs with her mother. Alice, in fact, seems only waiting to be convinced, as she’s also tired of catering to her reticent, needy, seething husband, though she’d never say it. As Josey and Alice gaze at one another, so much of their communication unspoken, the film finds its center. The women endure, the men fear them.
As much as the movie means well (and means large, as it conspicuously sets up as a second Oscar nomination for Theron), it doesn’t trust viewers to keep up (and honestly, it’s not moving that fast). Laying on cruelties, climactic plot turns, and tragic figures (Josey sheds earnest tears in the courtroom for gallant supporters as much as for brief, tension-building failures), North Country hits you up at every turn with emotional excesses. And, as Spacek demonstrates in her infrequent moments on screen, less is definitely more effective.