Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes
Thomas Curtis as Sammy Aimes
Frances McDormand as Glory
Sean Bean as Kyle
Richard Jenkins as Hank Aimes
Jeremy Renner as Bobby Sharp
Michelle Monaghan as Sherry
Woody Harrelson as Bill White
Sissy Spacek as Alice Aimes
James Cada as Don Pearson
Rusty Schwimmer as Big Betty
Jill Armenante as Peg
An emotionally-charged drama, “North Country” showcases another top-notch performance from Charlize Theron, who paints as vivid a picture of Josey Aimes as she did Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” It’s an exceptional sophomore effort from Niki “Whale Rider” Caro.
Single mother Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) has moved back home to Minnesota after being beaten by her husband. When she gets a job at the local mine, much against her miner father’s will, she learns that the men there do not appreciate having their jobs taken by women and will do anything to drive them away. After suffering numerous indignities, Josey hires a lawyer (Woody Harrelson) to file a class action suit against the mining company, only to learn that she doesn’t have the support from her family or the other women at the mine.
The many factors in consideration when determining a “perfect movie” are sometimes hard to pin down. More important than anything else, there has to be a synergy where everything falls into place. In that sense, Niki Caro’s debut “Whale Rider” was indeed a perfect movie, and for her film, Ms. Caro hasn’t missed a beat as she moves from working with non-actors to doing a studio-financed movie with experienced actors. She chose a difficult subject matter and one faced by many women, surely including some women directors in Hollywood, that of sexism and sexual harassment. Add to that an Oscar winning actress in Charlize Theron and you have the type of synergy that makes for great filmmaking.
Caro’s film opens much like Lasse Hallström’s “An Unfinished Life,” a woman leaving her abusive husband for a father living in the great expanses of Northern America. Ready to stand on her own two feet after years of relying on men, Josey gets a job at the local mine to try to support her two kids. After a humiliating medical check-up, she joins the mine’s female population who face disrespect and worse by their male counterparts who don’t think women should be working there. Most of the women let the taunts and abuse slide off them, but Josey has faced abuse by men her whole life, and the indignities are made worse by the presence of her former high school sweetheart, still bitter about their past. As the problems escalate, Josey goes to her manager, who is just as bad as his men and going over his head doesn’t help.
This sets the framework for a powerful character drama with enough basis in reality to be effective on many levels. Although loosely based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s novel “Class Action” about a real sexual harassment lawsuit, there’s no denying that artistic license was taken to make Josey Ames’ story more cinematic, and it’s sometimes surprising that this script was written by a man.
Of course, most of what makes this film so riveting can be attributed to the performance by Charlize Theron, who brings her A (for acting) game to the role, once again setting aside beauty and glamour for a tough and gritty performance more akin to a woman working at a mine. Josey is the perfect lynchpin for the story, as her problems at the mine are compacted by a dysfunctional family life still suffering from Josey being forced to leave home by her father when she got pregnant as a teenager. Josey’s father, played by Richard “Six Feet Under” Jenkins, has worked at the mine his entire life, and he feels that Josey has once again brought shame to the family, and her teen son Sammy starts to get bullied at school because of his mother’s chosen occupation. It’s not unlike David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”, where one’s actions affect their family. In that sense, the court case is merely a framing device to tell the story of how Josey finally closure in her life, and you can’t help but empathize, as she tries to take on the Goliath of the mining company with almost no support from those around her.
Unlike “Monster”, this is more of a group effort, as we learn much about the supporting characters through their interaction with Josey. The strongest subplot involves Josey’s friend Glory, as impressively portrayed by Frances McDormand, who gets to revive her accent from “Fargo.” Glory is a tough woman, a trucker at the mines who gives as good as she gets, who finds her strength failing as her body succumbs to Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s the type of performance that will surely get McDormand more Oscar attention. Likewise, Michelle Monaghan has a small role as Shelly, a younger woman working at the mine who has to fend off as much groping as Josie. Although Shelly seems far shallower and more naïve than Josey, she has a moment in the courtroom where we get to see her defenses come down. Surely, a movie in which the best female performance doesn’t come from Sissy Spacek, who plays Josey’s mother, is impressive.
Richard Jenkins stands out among the male cast with his rousing speech to the mine’s union in support of his daughter. It’s the type of “Whale Rider moment” that won’t leave a dry eye in the house, and it’s high point in a movie that goes from one powerful scene to the next. Woody Harrelson gives a solid performance, though it’s not far removed from the nice guy roles he often plays and he takes his courtroom moment a bit far. On the other hand, Sean Bean (“The Lord of the Rings”) plays against type as the town’s sole sensitive man.
The film’s last twenty minutes are emotionally draining, as the mining company’s female lawyer grills Josey on the stand trying to prove her history of promiscuity. In doing so, a revelation comes out that changes the face of the trial, and we finally learn about an incident alluded to earlier. Instead of delivering the reveal by having Theron give a tearful testimony, we see the incident unfold in flashback with haunting music replacing dialogue and regular cuts to show the reaction of those in the courtroom. It’s the type of directorial decision that drives home the point that Caro really knows how to get the strongest audience reaction without using conventional film tricks.
Sure, some of the scenes that follow this powerful moment may be seen superfluous or hokey, like Sean Bean’s man-to-man talk with Sammy, but each of them creates a piece in the larger puzzle which really gets to the heart of these characters and their story.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of quality drama with impeccable writing, acting and direction should appreciate “North Country,” especially any woman who has ever felt harassed or abused, who should find the story to be inspirational. Then again, it’s also a movie that many men should be forced to watch, because you realize that it’s the only way things might change.