October 24, 2005
by Michael Mix
Sometime during the year 2001, I caught the movie Reindeer Games on television. If you don't remember this film, it seemed like it was written by the monkey from Dunston Checks In. During one disturbingly awful scene, Charlize Theron's character has sex with her brother, played by a homeless looking Gary Sinise. If you had told me that five years later Theron might be accepting her second Academy Award, I would have died of laughter. However, after viewing the riveting North Country, this seems like a distinct possibility.
North Country stars Theron as Josey Aimes, a single mother who goes to work in the Minnesota mine where her father (Richard Jenkins) works. While laboring in the mine, she is subjected to cruel sexual harassment from the male workers. No one, not even her friends Glory (Frances McDormand) and Kyle (Sean Bean), will support her quest for justice. She eventually turns to down-on-his-luck lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who files a sexual harassment lawsuit against the mine.
Theron is incredible as the protagonist Josey. For every second of the movie, Theron embodies her character and immerses herself in her part. One particular scene stands out when the CEO of the mine tells Theron to tender her resignation. Her reaction is full of reserved anguish, as if she is struggling between breaking down and acting tough. When Theron yells out blunt “no,” it captures her increasing agony.
McDormand steals every scene as Glory. Her witty comebacks for all the men provides emotional motivation for Josey. Richard Jenkins is a revelation and gives the performance of a lifetime as Josey's father Hank. During a pivotal scene at a union meeting, Hank supports his daughter for the first time and gives a reserved, yet impassioned speech. Jenkins perfectly portrays a character struggling with the internal conflict of whether to support his daughter or his coworkers. Bean and Harrelson are both excellent in their small roles as well.
On the other hand, Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner's Daughter) is weak as Josey's mother Alice. Spacek is barely on screen and her scene where she chastises Hank feels out of character. Also, the usually reliable Xander Berkeley (24) was relatively annoying as Arlen Pavich, the mine supervisor. Berkeley's character was a caricature of a male chauvinist, complete with a ridiculous mustache more appropriate for Cliff Clavin.
Michael Seitzman's script also suffers from some problems. Some of the verbal acts of sexual harassment were too blatant and caricatured. For example, at one point Berkeley's character says to Josey that "the doctor says you look good under those clothes... sense of humor ladies, rulo numero uno." Lines like this felt too contrived and more apt to be found in a porn movie. Also, during another scene, Woody Harrelson's character actually starts a slow clap. I half expected everyone to start yelling out "Rudy!"
Director Niki Caro, who helmed the sleeper hit Whale Rider, can be acclaimed for getting brilliant performances out of almost everyone in the movie. Also, she pays a lot of attention to detail, outfitting almost everyone in the movie with flannel shirts and bowl haircuts to conform to the style of the late eighties. Caro also expertly uses popular music, especially Bob Dylan's tough style to fit perfectly with the tone of the movie.
While North Country is a difficult movie to watch due to its subject matter (a girl in the row behind me set a world record by crying for two hours straight), it is definitely worth seeing and don't be surprised if you hear Theron's name come Oscar time.