If there were any justice in Hollywood, Charlize Theron would have been cast as Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” Do not be fooled by her glamorous good looks — this “Monster” Best Actress winner knows how to suffer onscreen, which is what will be most memorable about “North Country,” an otherwise forgettable, though mostly well-made film. Domestic abuse, sexual discrimination, rape and a really bad haircut — all are thrown the way of Theron’s Josey Aims, a character based on a real-life miner who filed and won the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit. As is plainly stated in the film, the landmark case would “establish a legal precedent for every major company in the country,” and would be a triumphant victory for female employees of all industries.
The movie begins with a snowy scene of abuse, followed by a bruised Josey packing up her two kids and heading to stay with her parents, played by an underutilized Sissy Spacek and an amazingly capable Richard Jenkins. Things start to get awkward when the length of Josey’s stay becomes indefinite, but it isn’t long before she is out looking for a job. Luckily, she runs into an old friend, Glory (a “Fargo”-esque Frances McDormand), who “drives truck” for Pearson, the local mining company. She tells Josey that she can make plenty of money working the same kind of job her father works. For a flickering instant, things start looking up for poor old Josey.
But the good times do not last.
Most of the subsequent footage is laid out quite handsomely, offering plenty of Kodak-theater-ready vignettes that seem edited for Oscar night. There is a pervasive sense that Josey is going through Hell to “feed her kids,” whether it be due to the physical pain of shoveling coal, or the humiliating turmoil caused by her male co-workers. Amidst endless injustice — slurs written on the ladies’ dressing room door, dildos planted in lunch pails, googly-eyed stares, inappropriate touching, an accumulation of lewd comments — no one intervenes on her behalf. And worse yet, Josey’s complaints fall on deaf ears barbed quips (“take it like a man,” barks one coworker).
Of course, Josey’s efforts to help her situation are viewed by others as a way of making things worse. After an emotionally troubling scene in which a female worker is locked into a “port-a-john” and overturned by jocular men, Josey reports directly to the company president to notify him of the happenings. His response is an ultimatum: if she isn’t content at Pearson, he will graciously waive the required two-weeks notice and accept her resignation immediately.
When a bewildered Josey returns to work the next day to face a dressing room covered in feces, she discovers that even her female co-workers have ostracized her. They tell her they cannot afford losing their jobs and encourage her to quietly get back to work.
Suddenly, and miraculously, the film remembers it has other characters to play with. Sub-plots start springing up everywhere: Glory gets Lou Gehrig’s disease, Spacek’s character thinks about leaving her husband and Josey’s son quits the hockey team. Yet this deluge of melodrama makes the film too long and too diffuse. And while some sub-plots are well-acted, they could have been edited out to accommodate the film’s important central message — that women deserve equal rights, respect and a chance to earn a living, and every man who doesn’t think so is a misogynist pig.
But the terminus of this sentimentality is both muddled and awkward. The film’s conclusion mostly take place in the courtroom, punctuated with flashbacks of Josey being raped as a teenager. The courtroom dynamic exists only as an aesthetic — there is no jury, there aren’t enough defendants to make it a class-action lawsuit and there seems to be no regard for standard courtroom procedures that everyone has absorbed from watching “Law & Order.”
Still, most of the film is watchable, and even admirable in its treatment of feminist issues already proven primed for an Oscar acceptance speech (i.e. “Norma Rae”). Charlize Theron will likely join the ranks of Jodie Foster and Hillary Swank in the twin statuette club, and judging from precedence she deserves it. And if Mel Gibson gets an itch to make “The Passion of the Christ 2: The Resurrection,” who knows, she might just win a third.