North Country, New Zealand director Niki Caro's follow-up feature to the crowd-pleasing Whale Rider, opens in the aftermath of an ostensibly disturbing scene of domestic violence. In a flustering moment, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), an unlucky and oppressed mother with an unfortunate mullet, decides to leave her abusive husband. The audience is forced to stick with Josey for the rest of the film. But, this initial situation is too sudden and immediately asks the audience to sympathize with a character who has barely been introduced.
After much financial struggle, Josey decides to work in Northern Minnesota working around the male-dominated coal mines. She, along with her female coworkers, initially tolerates the abuse from the vulgar men since the check allows her to pay the bills and pamper her children. Yet, once the misogynist practical jokes turn into harrowing experiences, including the devastating tipping of a port-a-potty, Josey decides that she must sacrifice her job for women's liberation. She contacts a lawyer friend and starts a seminal class action sexual harassment case.
Sound like a Lifetime Movie of the Week? Well, it is not far off. And how about the culminating court scenes? They are not nearly as compelling as the pedestrian ones seen each week on "Law & Order."
As showcased in the opening moments, the film would rather spend time showing the adversity Josey faces in and out of the court than develop her character. Unfortunately, aside from the usual cinematic characterization, Josey seems to be there only to fulfill the political purpose of the film, which is to portray an unfairly abused woman as a resilient underdog against the male-centric institutions of America. The same could be said for the bland supporting characters as well.
Within the first minute of the film, the phrase "inspired by true events" (not "based upon a true story") appears on the screen. This, of course, means that an event similar to the one in the film occurred-but most of the script is fabricated. Ironically, the film will most likely be remembered (if it is remembered at all) for its social importance and not because of adept filmmaking, which is noticeably lacking.
The director's previous film, Whale Rider, was a poignant tale of female ambition and the Maori culture. In North Country, also a tale of women's empowerment, Caro goes from having compassion for the characters and audience to becoming unbearably didactic. In Whale Rider, she simultaneously went for the heart and the mind, but there is a serious lack of the latter here.
The advertisements for North Country boast the presence of three Academy Award winning actresses: Theron, Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek. Theron portrays Josey with conviction and integrity-and a few too many tears. The constant close-ups of Theron's pretty yet distraught face are used excessively to the point where they became grating. If Theron scores an Oscar nomination for this performance (which she might), she will have a difficult time deciding which "Oscar clip" to use since half of her scenes are the type of hysterical confessionals that most actors submit.
McDormand reprises her Fargo accent to play the generic best friend who has problems of her own. Spacek's role as Josey's mother is more of a glorified cameo. She merely exists to represent the old-fashioned perspective on gender roles, as does Richard Jenkins, who plays Josey's stoic father and gives Theron another reason to cry. The scant use of McDormand and Spacek's talent is downright ignominious.
Near the beginning of the film, there is an intriguingly symbolic shot of a dead elk lying in the back of a truck. The hunted animal hyperbolically sets precedence for the cruelty that Josey will soon face. Unfortunately, the film does not explore this potent theme of man's blatant brutality. In fact, it struggles hard not to be an indictment of na