Struggling to keep her life together while raising two kids on her own, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) moves back in with her Minnesota iron range parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek), and eyes a job at the local taconite mine. Entering a predominately male workplace that only recently allowed women to hold jobs there, Josey is immediately humiliated by her co-workers through varying degrees of sexual harassment and intimidation. Her female co-workers (including Frances McDormand and Michelle Monaghan) insist that she keep quiet and take the abuse, but when the harassment becomes violent, she enlists a lawyer acquaintance (Woody Harrelson) to help her sue the mine for damages.
“North Country” purports itself to be based on fact, but you could’ve fooled me. Taken from the landmark Lois Jenson sexual harassment case of the 1980s, the story is ripe for a big screen treatment that cuts directly to the heart of this explosive topic, and pays respect to those that fought for the right to stand up and demand equality. “North Country” has a sensational story, it’s just a crime the filmmakers elected to write the script with crayons.
Charlize Theron leads an ensemble cast to bring this tale to life, and their efforts to impart a history and life to these characters is duly noted. Simply carrying out their orders from director Niki Caro, the cast tries their best to rise above the material and portray a tough life of hard labor and crippling abuse. Pros like Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins know how to convey internalize anguish, and they make Theron look better than her weepy-eyed lead performance initially seems. Saddled with broad, unfortunate Minn-eee-soh-TAHH accents, the cast has an uphill battle just trying to make themselves into believable mine workers (with serious conditioner issues), beaten into submission by their peers.
The screenplay by Michael Seitzman doesn’t offer any assistance to the talent, instead leaving them stranded with unreasonably pronounced depictions of abuse. Caro, who showed such great promise with the magical “Whale Rider,” flaccidly captures what’s on the page, leaving the audience with a film that doesn’t understand subtlety, thus losing half of its horror. There’s no doubt in my mind the depths of hell Jenson faced on a daily basis as she struggled to maintain her job were decimating to her soul, but throw them up on the big screen, and the situations push themselves into caricature. With Josey’s male co-workers literally licking their lips while she passes, grabbing their crotches at union meetings, and grunting around like knuckle-dragging cavemen, “Country” comes dangerously close to basic cable-level production values, and severely neuters the level of terror these men should inspire.
Caro wants the audience to be on Josey’s side so badly, that she neglects to paint a bigger picture of the traditional sex roles that once ruled the mines; it serves as a backdrop, but is never explored. Caro is more interested in shock value with the various feces, sex toy, and semen pranks that are pulled on the women of the mine. Comprehension of Josey’s daily survival in her workplace is also oddly missing, leaving behind only short moments of horror. Toward the end of the “Country,” it dawns that reality is not what the filmmakers are after here, they want easy acceptance instead. They want a simplistic courtroom crowd pleaser instead of doing justice to what Jenson achieved. That’s a shame.
“North Country” is an incredibly important midwestern story, and to see it balled up and tossed around in so many formulaic ways feels like a colossal missed opportunity. To reduce this story into bite-sized Oscar-baiting moments is missing the entire point of the struggle for equality and safety, making “North Country” seriously misguided as it begs nakedly for authenticity.Rating: C-