North Country (Warner Bros.) opens with Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, a housewife and mother, getting beaten by her spouse and driving the kids to the home of her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins), who wonder what she did to make her husband so mad—sleep with another guy, maybe? It must’ve been something. Her dad doesn’t take kindly to Josey when, in an attempt to be self-sufficient, she applies for a job at the local iron-ore mine. The Supreme Court did say women can do anything men can do, but the mine ain’t no place for girls, and anyway, jobs are scarce enough without females in the workplace. The first thing Josey hears at orientation is a muttered epithet beginning with “c”; this is, however, positively collegial compared to having it scrawled in fecal matter on the walls of the women’s locker room. The company doctor puts Josey in stirrups and fills the fellas in on the state of her privates. Then comes the innuendo and outright slander, the gazes both leering and baleful, more “c” and “b” utterances, sexual menacing—and, to add insult to injury, there’s Anita Hill getting grilled by males on TV while her mother tsk-tsks and says, think of that poor man’s family. Even her son calls her a whore. And then there are the flashbacks to when Josey was a teenager, and if you think she’s getting sexually harassed now …
In interviews, Theron and her director, Niki Caro, have said that the original screenplay (by Michael Seitzman) was a little too black-and-white, and that they tried to introduce “shades of gray.” I can only infer that said shades are moments when some of the men—after hissing the c-word and pushing over a Port-A-Potty with one of Josey’s co-workers (Michelle Monaghan) in it, who emerges screaming and sobbing and covered in liquid shit—are shown, for a second or two, with a look of shame. But those looks are fleeting. There is, after all, harassment to be done.
North Country is powerful and then some. I came out shaking, dabbing at my eyes, and vowing never again to write the c-word in shit on the walls of a women’s room. Josey’s plight would make Oliver Twist say, “What a rough life.” The template is similar to Caro’s Whale Rider: remote setting; strong-willed female in conflict with an entrenched masculine culture; and much that rests on the (belated) endorsement of a deeply threatened patriarch. But there’s no escape—not even a friendly whale on which to hop. Even Josey’s fellow harassees wish she’d shut up and live with it. The theme isn’t just sexism, but the changing American economy—the blue-collar towns slowly dying, their hangers-on living a dog-eat-dog life, with the bitches the first to go.
The movie is based on the book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. No, make that “inspired by,” meaning nothing happened the way it’s presented, but the authors got a big check for the film rights. And for all my male snark, there is much here to inspire women entering the workplace. After all, few experiences could be worse than Josey’s. Pubic hair on a Coke can—bring it on.
Chris Menges’ cinematography—with its customary emphasis on landscape (stark), the texture of buildings (rust, peeling paint), and even the air (or airlessness)—undercuts the melodrama, and Caro coaxes exquisitely nuanced performances from her actors. Theron remains a fascinating actress, with those soft blue eyes and cheeks and that hard, unfussy delivery. She sobs a lot in this picture, but the tears never seem forced—they almost erupt from her eyes in spite of her resolve, with flashes of anger in their wake. The film’s most enlivening scenes are between Theron and the even harder Frances McDormand as a co-worker (and union rep) who steadies Josey, advises her to develop “gator skin,” and gives it back to the harassers—although the part calls for her to be weakened by illness, as if what men can’t do, a misogynistic universe can. Just as superb is Spacek, soft-spoken, with little glasses on a chain around her neck, the repressed as agent of repression—but increasingly alert to the schism.
There is a marvelous shot of Monaghan tipsily sashaying her way towards a newcomer (Woody Harrelson) in the local watering hole, savoring her power in this one arena. (Gently if wryly rebuffed—”I have underwear older than you”—she has no comeback except to call him a homo.) As Josey’s timorous suitor and the lawyer who finally takes her case for sexual harassment, Harrelson serves up an amusing (if incredible) blend of solicitousness and opportunism, sensitivity and (when shredding a witness) machismo. In North Country, men do have their uses, especially if women can arouse their Superman instincts and let them save the day. You can imagine those men saying, “I’m proud of you for your bold, empowering feminism, little lady.”