Sexual harassment is something often joked about and brushed off, but it's no laughing matter. North Country is a fictionalized retelling of the landmark case filed by Lois Jenson against Eveleth Mines in 1988, and explored in the book "Class Action". It was a groundbreaking lawsuit that gave birth to sexual harassment policies, protecting people from being catcalled, groped, and drooled upon in the workplace. Walking on streets passing construction workers—well, that's another story.
North Country is “inspired by a true story.” In other words, nothing is true except that there are women, some slobbering guys, a mine, and a court case. The rest is pretty much fabricated to make a more acceptable—and as it turns out, less interesting—Hollywood picture. Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, based on the Jenson character. After her husband beats her up a few too many times, she brings the kids Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and Karen (Elle Peterson) back to her hometown of Northern Minnesota. They stay with her disapproving parents Alice (Sissy Spacek) and Hank (Richard Jenkins). While working at a low paying job in a hair salon, she comes across an old friend named Glory (Frances McDormand), who tells her that the mine where she ‘drives truck’ is hiring. It’s manly work and far from a picnic, but it pays well and could help her give the kids a more fancy lifestyle.
Mission accomplished. Fast forward to where Josey and the kids are out for dinner at a generic, middle class diner, and she gets choked up saying, “This is our first time in a nice restaurant.” Josey doesn’t mind the hard labor she experiences at her new job as a miner, but she could do without the sexual aggression in every corner of her workplace. There is a small group of women working there, because of those darned anti-discrimination hiring laws, and their group presence is resented. Bobby (Jeremy Renner) is the morally bankrupt leader of the man-pack harassing the workers with two X chromosomes. Their manager, Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley), hops on the bandwagon himself, encouraging the groping and foul banter. Dildos in lunchboxes, blowjobs plastered in graffiti along the walls, perverted jokes—they’re all fair game.
The scenes within the mine have the most impact. With the exception of one forceful incident, the men don’t physically harm the women. But the scary abuse they create through comments and vulgarities are disarming, and North Country paints an honest picture of how words can be used as weapons. It is within these frames that the movie succeeds…and then there’s the rest of it.
North Country completely loses its focus, and becomes a mess of varying stories that don’t gel together. One moment we’re watching Josey fighting in court on her own—the other women feebly absent—and then it heads in another direction. Suddenly the movie arbitrarily sidetracks into the disturbing reality of who Sammy’s biological father is. Glory's storyline takes a detour into movie-of-the-week terrain, and it’s distracting. Add to that a cheesy, tacked-on ending painted with a big smiley face. Quick, someone feed this movie some A.D.D. medication.
Charlize Theron offers another outstanding performance, proving once and for all that she is far beyond being another pretty face. But all the talent in the world cannot compensate for Michael Seitzman’s unfocused script, which hops from cliché to detour like a schizophrenic game of Leapfrog. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) is unable to elevate the story to the level it needs to be memorable. The next time a true story this fascinating arrives, it should be turned into a documentary and left far away from the Hollywood machine. Lois Jenson, you deserved better.