North Country begins on a downbeat note and only spirals deeper into the muck, though it's engrossing, socially relevant mud-boggling all the way.
Director Niki Caro's sexual harassment drama is a follow-up to her acclaimed girl-with-spunk film, Whale Rider. North Country treads a similar path of emotional highs and lows in telling its story of a woman (not unlike the slice of half-pint girl power played by Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider) who has a problem with the brutal power dynamic of men on top and women on bottom.
Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is introduced as an undeniable bottom, lying bloody and beaten on her kitchen floor. The domestic violence that opens North Country is just a taste of the orchestrated male violence to come in Caro's blue collar dystopia.
Josey flees her abusive husband with her two perpetually mussed, ragamuffin children for the presumed sanctuary of her parents' house. But Josey can't escape a brutal working class law-of-the-jungle that says women are the domestic slave labor and men the proud working volk.
Her own parents are exemplars of Archie Bunker gender roles. Her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), is a miner with a lifelong disgust for his sexually precocious daughter, and her mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), is a long-suffering mouthpiece for the law of Daddy.
Josey takes a job in the same northern Minnesota iron mine where Hank labors. There she finds a culture of pathological sexual harassment justified by the male miners' fear that these women are taking away their jobs. The other miners terrorize Josey and her co-workers at every turn with creative uses of excrement and threats of rape, while "decent" men stand by and do nothing.
With anger and force, North Country conveys a stark, sobering political reality: When the economy is precarious and men grapple for work, they don't take out their frustrations on the company or their bosses, but on people more powerless than they are, in this case the women viewed as opportunistic job-grabbers. Even Josey's mother tries to explain away Josey's husband's abuse as the result of his frail state of mind at being so long unemployed.
The brutality of the devastated, strip-mined, dead-of-winter Minnesota landscape and an equally frigid human hardheartedness is underscored by Chris Menges' (The Killing Fields, Dirty Pretty Things) chillingly atmospheric cinematography. Equally disturbing is the repeated metaphor of slaughtered animals to give the film its primal kill-or-be-killed sense of menace.
Caro's film hinges on the naive but cathartic American belief that wrongs will be made right in the symbolic proving ground of a just and equal society -- the courtroom where Josey's sexual discrimination case is argued by an expatriate New York lawyer (Woody Harrelson) in a case inspired by a true story.
Caro's rabble-rousing, impassioned film falters when the conventional operations of the courtroom drama take over. In this day and age, do we still believe in the courtroom as the balm to heal our national sins? North Country is a film fierce and principled enough to make you want to believe, even when you can't.
Unlike us-against-them labor dramas in the Silkwood tradition, North Country offers a far scarier proposition. In Caro's film, injustice originates within a working class governed more by a sense of mob rule than democratic principles of equality. In the nasty pecking order of the mine, the weakest citizens are persecuted instead of protected, and even Josey's own father is more inclined to side with the men he works with than protect his own daughter.
With its heavy-hitting female cast of Frances McDormand and Spacek, North Country has an unshakable ethos of female solidarity, which is enhanced by Theron playing against her goddess packaging.
As in Monster, Theron offers another compelling portrait of institutionalized cruelty and sexism, though this time around, the woman gets to fight back and survive.