Minnesota, 1990. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) has been beaten up by her husband one too many times. She bundles up her son, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and her daughter, Karen (Elle Peterson), both from different fathers, and drives back to her parent's home. Her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins) is less than thrilled to see them, but her mom, Alice (Sissy Spacek) welcomes them with open arms. After a few days, Josey learns from her friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) that the big Iron mine, where the majority of the town and her father works, is hiring. Josey needs the money - the mine pays six times what she makes as a hair salon shampoo woman - so she applies and instantly realizes that there is a big problem; sexual harassment is rampant. The other woman will do nothing to stop it because they are fearful of retaliation and losing their jobs. Josie is finally pushed too far and turns to Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a former Hockey Player turned lawyer, to help her sue the mine.
"North Country", directed by Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), is `inspired by true events'. This means that there was an actual sexual harassment case brought to court by a woman working at a mine in Minnesota, but all of the names have been changed, allowing the filmmakers some dramatic license. That case would change the landscape of the workplace throughout the country.
Thank goodness. If even half of what is portrayed in this film actually happened, the men in this mine were pigs. They don't look kindly on the women for `taking jobs that aren't there to take', meaning they think that the women are taking jobs away from other men. This is always such a bad argument that it is a wonder it always resurfaces in some form or another.
Any film with Frances McDormand ("Fargo") and Sissy Spacek ("In the Bedroom") joining the recently minted Theron is going to be at least interesting. "North County" is a lot better because of these three actresses.
Theron ("Monster") is very good as Josey, a fairly typical character in this type of film, but there is an underlying force, brought by the actress, making her a little electrifying, a little more interesting. Her domestic life hasn't been wonderful. Josey had Sammy when she was 16. Karen's father is the guy who beats up on her. When she finds she needs to return home to her parents, her Dad asks her "Where you cheating on him?" looking for a reason for him beating his daughter. Life at the mine is no cakewalk either. She realizes that she shouldn't have to put up with the harassment, but she does because she doesn't want to create waves for her father or the other women who work there. When she finally does decide to sue the mine, their lawyer brings up her past, which ultimately works against them. She also has a difficult time with Sammy, a typical pre-teen and subject to the peer pressure that most kids his age have to put up with. When Josey begins to make waves, many people, men and women, begin to fear what a possible lawsuit could do to their livelihood. They call her names, won't let their sons pass to Sammy during a hockey game and the like. Naturally, he takes it out on her and their already rocky relationship hits a new low. But Josey, like a lot of women, will do anything for her kids. Basically, Josey just wants to be able to work. When she finds this impossible due to all of the sexual harassment, and her job is on the line, she decides to take them to court. Theron's performance is the centerpiece of the film and it is always believable. We get a sense that this woman actually lived; perhaps Theron is basing the character on someone she knows, because it is very good.
Frances McDormand is, as always, good. Her character, Glory, seems tailor made for an Academy Award nomination. Glory ultimately proves to be the lynchpin to Josey's case and she has a physical problem that develops fairly quickly. Both of these elements are like sugar to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To the group who picks the Oscars, the only thing better than someone standing up against a large institution is someone who gets sick while standing up against a large institution. But throughout, McDormand doesn't seem to realize that her character is like candy to the Academy's baby. She works very hard to make her character credible and real. And she succeeds. The best part of her character is her relationship with Kyle (Sean Bean). Kyle used to work at the mine until he hurt his back. Now he stays at home and repairs watches while his partner, Glory, works at the mine driving trucks and participating in the union. Their relationship is very interesting, very modern and completely believable.
Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are very believable as Josey's parents. Very old school, Hank immediately assumes it's the wife's fault every time his daughter has a problem. He doesn't want her to work at the mine, because she is a woman. Hank initially serves as our personal filter to the male persona so pervasive throughout his workplace. Spacek's Alice has always been a stay at home mom. In her world, the husband goes off to work and earns the money; the woman stays at home and tends to the house. She seems to support some of the awkward views her husband expresses, making them all the more horrific. Later, as the story develops, as she realizes what Josey has gone through, she begins to adopt more modern views, forcing her husband to do the same. Again, we have seen this type of situation in many films and television shows, but the actor and director work in a reserved manner to make the performances believable.
Niki Caro's second film, "North Country" explores many of the same issues of her critically acclaimed debut "Whale Rider". Both films tell the story of a strained relationship between father and daughter; both films depict a community uneasy with the protagonist's actions. The community depicted in "North Country" is even fairly insular, as the New Zealand village is in "Whale". Niki Caro seems to bring a lot of heart and emotion to the characters in her films, whether it is a small fishing village in New Zealand or a small town in Northern Minnesota. Really, the biggest difference between the two films is the climate.
"North Country" is a very good film depicting another sad moment in our country's history.