The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, September 29, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - North Country

Originally published 11/2/05
Full review behind the jump

North Country

: Niki Caro
: Screenplay by Michael Seitzman, bsed on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harrassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy
: Nick Wechsler
: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Thomas Curtis, Richard Jenkins

It’s an old story, but tragically not old enough that variations on it aren’t still cropping up by the thousands in this country in this century. A man attacks a woman, says she was asking for it and the herd brands her a slut. A man beats his wife, and even though she’s on the floor with a bruised eye and a bleeding lip she’s advised it’s her responsibility to make it right, because a marriage is sacred and if she walks out on it this makes the rending of it her fault.

It’s easy to get angry at the weak, their presence reminds us of our own shame and cowardice in not standing up with them against the strong. And so the herd becomes the accomplices of the abusers, and blames the victims for not accepting their lot quietly.
North Country is about strong women who are punished because they are expected to be weak, and have enough at stake in their lives that to fight back would be too dangerous. And you can see the hook now: until one woman…

And this is a story about one woman (Charlize Theron) who is pushed too far and overturns the status quo. She is not a revolutionary, or even a feminist by nature. She just has a simple choice – she can’t go back to the husband that beats her, and she can’t make enough to support her two children as a hairdresser. So she needs to work at the coal mine, because it has the best-paying jobs in town. She wants to do the American Dream right – work hard, play by the rules, and have a decent living as reward. It’s a classic Hollywood story and, in what is an increasing rarity for dramas of substance, it achieves genuine emotion and uplift.

Although “inspired” by the true story of the first class-action lawsuit for sexual harassment, this is a fictional account. The shape is familiar, as are many of the plotlines – a disillusioned lawyer (Woody Harrelson) takes on hopeless case, a father (Richard Jenkins) forgives his daughter for the sins he imagined and seeks his own forgiveness by finally standing up for her. Then there’s the son (Thomas Curtis) who finally finds a strong father figure (Sean Bean), and the spurned ex-boyfriend (Jeremy Renner) who abuses the power of his position in ways that are alternately infantile and ominous. There’s even a fatal disease for one of the major characters to suffer nobly with.

Any one of these plot threads could have been the most numbing of clichés, but director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, a superb movie you must see at once if you haven’t yet) has a fresh eye and fire in her storytelling belly, and she assembles a superb cast to inject immediacy into every moment. She shows an outsider’s fascination for the landscape of the North and the otherworldly machines of the coal mine, and her sense for what to show and when makes it all come alive. A soundtrack built around Bob Dylan songs also sets the tone impeccably. This is the union the movie industry used to get right – the suits block out what story they’d like to see told in the broad strokes, and they trust the creatives to bring it into vibrant being.

This story centers around Josey Aimes (Theron), who has indeed made the final split from her drunk and unemployed husband and must find means to support herself. A Supreme Court ruling has forced the coal mine to accept female job applicants, and old friend Glory (Frances McDormand) tells her about the good money that can be made if she has thick skin. Glory is feisty, has a boyfriend (Bean) who loves her to the bone, and knows how to slap back when insulted. She thinks she’s developing arthritis but she’s not – and she remains feisty enough to take on a larger fight even as her body begins to disintegrate. McDormand wore this same regional accent to immortality in Fargo – here she overcomes the strong memory of that role with equal parts grace and grit.

At the mine, Josey has no idea how thick her skin will need to be. This isn’t just teasing and innuendos, this is ritual humiliation and degradation, advances made with underlying threats. This is waste smeared on the locker room wall. The perpetrators are few, but when a bully relies on his “brothers” to stick up for him, all it takes is a few to make every day at work hell.

Josey doesn’t want to make big trouble, in fact she wants to make it as little trouble as possible. She just wants to work. But when your supervisor threatens to rape you if you don’t “learn the rules”, his supervisor (Xander Berkeley) tells you that there wouldn’t be so many problems if you didn’t sleep around so much (Josey doesn’t have time for such attachments, but rumors have followed her ever since a high school pregnancy whose origin she concealed), and the boss of the company (James Cada) tells you that he’s happy to waive the two-week notice union requirement and let you quit today if you’re so unhappy, where do you turn?

Every version of pain, from daily indignity to the most brutal personal violations, is visited on Josey, and we suffer with her. At times it challenges belief how persistent and specific the abuse is, you wonder how some of these people manage to get any mining done, but the movie notices the good men also in the mine, and it notices their silence.

And though it comes near to hitting those false notes several times it does squarely strike many that feel urgently true; like a painful scene at an ice rink that takes us step by step to a moment where our hero realizes that she looks like white trash to everyone in town, and no one will ever hear her explanation. Sometimes no matter what you do you can’t shatter the false image of you constructed by long years of assumption and judgment.

Charlize Theron is an actress of stunning beauty who tampers down her looks here – she’s still attractive, but more of a Minnesota attractive than a Hollywood attractive. She fits in with the long-neck drinkers. She also gives a hell of a great performance, not the utter transformation of her Academy Award-winning role in the very-indie Monster, but something more like Jodie Foster in The Accused, a studio-sized drama featuring an unsparing portrait of a confused Everywoman in over her head. The result is heartbreak followed by inspiration, and a truly excellent film.


Post a Comment

<< Home