North Country is a blue-collar movie, a standing-up-to-bullies movie, and a martyr movie, all wrapped in one. It has its faults, but on the whole it’s a satisfying full two hours of American drama.
R for sexual harassment, violence, language
A woman (Charlize Theron) whose husband beats her returns to her childhood home. It’s a small town whose lifeblood is the iron mine where her father still works. (Her father, by the way, takes one look at her bruised face and asks whether she deserved it by sleeping around.)
She takes a job at the mine for six times her previous salary, but the macho culture there recoils. The men, collectively and individually, make her life unbearable, hoping to drive her out. After an hour of screen time taking this abuse, she sues the mine for sexual harassment, breaking new legal ground in the mid-1980s.
Been There, Done That
We’ve seen this movie before. It’s the one where the whistleblower stands up to the bullies in a climate of fear and insists on justice. It’s also a “martyred woman” movie along the lines of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dancer in the Dark, or Breaking the Waves.
The situation lends itself to cliches and stereotypes. Small towns and cults of masculinity are incubators for evil. And yet, there is some truth to the cliches. Human nature does let us get caught up in climates of fear and accusation. In the right size groups, we have it in us to ostracize the pariah, for fear that we ourselves will become tainted.
Even if it’s not completely original, North Country is a strong film with much to recommend it.
Charlize Theron again hides her supermodel beauty to become a more normal-looking American. Her co-stars are believably blue collar, too. Her parents are played by Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek. Frances McDormand, beloved for her accent in Fargo, plays another Minnesotan. One of the principal tormentors is played by a handsome-yet-creepy Jeremy Renner of Dahmer fame. All the extras look like true, well-fed, small-town Minnesotans, and not like starving Angeleno actors hoping for a little screen time.
Kiwi director Niki Caro Whale Rider makes the transition to America seamlessly enough. Like Lars Von Trier, she gets the courtroom scene maddeningly wrong. But that scene is outweighed by the full two hours of engrossing drama that lead up to it.
Chris Menges offers some great intuitive cinematography. For example, there are unconventional over-the-shoulder shots that pinch the foreground character’s head in the bottom of the screen. They’re not exactly jarring, but they have an unpolished feel that seems right for a small American town twenty years ago. The extreme telephoto shot of the gigantic dump truck dwarfing the regular pickup truck, overlaid with the voice of women behind the wheel, seem to illustrate just how much raw power is at stake.
A Hill of Beans
It’s telling that, after the movie, my friends and I picked apart the movie by the little details it got wrong. The courtroom scene was so painful we wondered if Caro’s foreign-ness was to blame. The movie-cliche of the town’s eventual swell of support was “odious.” And yet we were engrossed by the big picture enough that all of our complaints added up to a few nitpicks.
North Country may lack glamor and refinement, but there’s an honesty and power in its coveralls.