POSTED ON 10/21/05 AT 3:00 P.M.
BY ETHAN AAMES
Cast: Charize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean
3(out of 4)
By Sean Chavel
Charlize Theron (an Oscar winner for "Monster"), does absolutely everything she can to shed her pretty, rosy image to play a sexual harassment victim who crusades against the steel factory that damned her in the new film "North Country." The film tackles just about every gamut of sexual harassment that can be thought of, and throws at you a few incidents that you would never have thought of. In the industrial ruins of Minnesota, the Neanderthal men are hostile in their use of off-color language and vulgar pranks. No “Minnesota Nice” can be found in this movie. It’s all disgust and yuckiness in its treatment of women who are viciously disrespected.
One woman though is not embarrassed to fight back. Some women would quit the job and relocate, but considering the background of the story, that is not an option for this particular heroine.
Scarred by an abusive marriage, Josey Aimes (Theron) runs away with her two children and seeks work. Her father Hank (Richard Jenkins), a sexist totally unaware, works at the steel factory. So does her friend Glory (Frances McDormand), a strong and drink-hardy married woman, that convinces Josey that she could use a job at the factory that pays well. And for the first time, Josey gets a job with good pay. Soon, she is able to put a down payment on her own house but she has to keep work just to be able to continue to pay for it.
But the working conditions become less and less tolerable. Josey’s male peers ceaselessly bombard her with innuendo and label her as “whore,” and her supervisors and managers intimidate her from lodging any complaint. Women, it is to be understood, do not belong at the plant. It’s a man job. And every man is going to make it impossible for her to feel comfortable at the factory. The other women suffer as well, but are too timid to protest in fear that they will risk their jobs. But Josey, in Erin Brockovich-like territory, wants to set parameters. Slurs, unwanted touching, and lewd vandalism is entirely unacceptable.
There is some nice supporting acting work by Woody Harrelson as Josey’s lawyer and friend – he’s a male character with enough courage to take a woman’s side. Sean Bean (currently seen in Flightplan) is also a gentlemanly, if brutish, confidante. Sissy Spacek also delivers an effective performance as Josey’s old-time traditional mother – she says that Josey ought to play by the boy’s rules no matter what. The actors are always convincing in their steady-stream portrayal of working class attitudes and behavior, and you accept them as Minnesota people.
In a movie short on tender moments, the film has one particularly unconvincing one where Josey discusses her awful past with her son (Thomas Curtis). The information that she shares concerns intimately wounding details, and is in some judgment inappropriate for a mother to share with her son. The tone of the scene is all wrong, for it seems to commend Josey for being honest. But there’s a line that’s crossed about being too honest with children in certain situations. One more quibble: there is a scene in a parking lot where there seems to be way too many extras watching Josey as she loses her temper.
Most of the time however, the film is believably on-target. Josey is uncompromisingly portrayed as a hard-luck woman who suffered more personal damage than any person should ever deserve. "North Country" becomes the true story of the nation’s first-ever class action lawsuit for sexual harassment, and that makes the movie a notable footnote. This is certainly one of the better Big Topic dramas of the serious fall movie season, and the acting, particularly by Theron, is powerful and searing. But the movie also works very hard to be a downer, so while much of the work in this movie is admirable, you have to have a strong stomach to take it. It is almost as abusive just to pay witness to this harsh stuff.