North Country

Oct 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

If it weren’t a major studio release, North Country would be the best Lifetime movie ever made. That’s not necessarily a slight: Lifetime movies are usually emotionally gut-wrenching docudramas in which a woman suffers an injustice, fights back all by her lonesome, and, having achieved martyrdom status, finally wins the support of her peers and/or a fat court settlement. If the song rights weren’t so expensive, “I Will Survive” would play over the closing credits for every single one. These empowerment sagas do serve their purpose — like eating potato chips, once you start watching, you can’t stop — but you’re always left wondering how good they might be had they been shot on location, given a credible sense of atmosphere and cast with an array of talented actors.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what North Country is. True, the film’s schematic script may be little better than the ripped-from-the-headlines issue movies shown on basic cable, and the idea of casting a slew of A-list stars as “simple folk” may smack of Hollywood condescension. But director Niki Caro infuses nearly every moment with a heartrending realism, and coaxes her cast into performances of subtle, understated grace. Even at its most Oscar-baiting moments, this is a movie that feels lived-in instead of calculated, heartfelt instead of thought-out.

Michael Seitzman’s script is a fictionalized account of a true story detailed in Class Action, a book documenting a group of female mine workers in Minnesota who, after enduring years of taunts, come-ons, vile “gifts” and even physical assaults, sued the corporation that turned a blind eye to the abuse. For the movie, their 15 years of harassment have been condensed to a few torturous seasons in the late ’80s, and the traumatic, almost decade-long legal battle has been reduced to just the preliminary phase.

It’s a limited view, but Caro uses the opportunity to hone in on the day-to-day existence of a single mother named Josey (Charlize Theron), her quietly judgmental parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins), her no-bullshit childhood friend Glory (Frances McDormand) and a greasy would-be boyfriend from high school (Jeremy Renner). Eager to fend for herself, Josey seeks out a job in the town’s only decent-paying industry: the vast, imposing iron mines. Though women were legally granted the right to work in the mines in 1975, Josey finds that, from the moment female employees clock in, it’s as if they have no rights at all; when they’re not opening their lunchboxes to find planted dildos, they’re busy erasing the word “cunts” from the walls of their locker room.

Things get far worse from there. The film presents behavior so unremittingly grisly and systematically humiliating that a lesser filmmaker might’ve lost his or her audience as soon as the torment begins: Issue movies have a tendency to reduce their characters to little more than generic sufferers. But Caro and Theron create such a vivid portrait of Josey that she never becomes a mere totem for gender equity. A sequence where Josey and Glory knock back a few beers on karaoke night needs no emphasis or higher meaning; Caro merely allows Theron to interact with the environment, and exchange significant glances, comments and interactions with the men around her.

Cinematographer Chris Menges adds an element of imposing grandeur to what is essentially a world of men and their machines. Male or female, everyone seems dwarfed by their surroundings. Some of the climactic courtroom dialogue rings false, especially when compared to all the naturalism that came before it. But Caro and Theron understand that the most important moments of North Country are the ones where nothing is said at all.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].