Taking Issue

Salt Lake City Weekly | October 14, 2005
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) does about as much artistically with her genre in North Country as it’s possible to do. And the movie is still--very often--annoying.

The genre in question is the Earnestly Political Legal Drama, and thereby is Caro’s work here doomed to kinda-okay-ness. Earnestly Political Legal Dramas--like this one, based as it is on a real-life landmark sexual harassment class action case--can pretend all they want to that they are about the characters and their journeys, but they’re not. They are about an Issue, and movies about an Issue are annoying. It’s part of their DNA; they can’t help it any more than Hilton sisters can resist their genetic skankiness.

When they wallow blankly in their self-importance, such films are insufferable, but something as stylish as North Country is frustrating in an entirely different way. Charlize Theron polishes off her Oscar-winner cachet here as Josey Aimes, a mother of two determined to leave her abusive husband. But good, family-supporting jobs are hard to come by in Northern Minnesota in 1989, so Josey signs on to work at the local iron mine. It’s still mostly a boys’ club, and the boys like it that way. They like it that way so much that they entertain their female co-workers by fondling them, writing abusive language on their locker room door, and generally providing evidence that man did in fact evolve from lower primates.

It’s a world of clearly marked gender roles, and Caro--along with screenwriter Michael Seitzman--actually does an impressive job of conveying how deeply ingrained those roles are on both sides. Apart from the lewd sniggering, there are the swimsuit calendars that adorn the office walls of men. The women do their part to maintain the status quo as well, whether it’s Josey’s mother (Sissy Spacek) subtly suggesting that Josey should go back to the guy who beats her, or a woman in a bar calling a guy who’s not interested in dancing with her a “homo.”

Caro’s sense of this world extends to her use of cinematographer Chris Menges--who renders the Minnesota landscape a prison grey--and Minnesota native Bob Dylan as the soundtrack’s dominant voice. There’s filmmaking prowess all over North Country, starting with an engrossing in medias res opening and including subtle touches like a character reading a goodbye note from his wife without ever showing us its specific contents. The performances are often surprisingly understated, even the usually broad and brassy Frances McDormand as Josey’s pal. And it takes a special affection for the characters to have a scene in which Josey and her kids eat breakfast at a Village Inn--with Josey admonishing the kids that it’s their first time “in a nice restaurant”--played with zero ironic laughs at the yokels.

A filmmaker’s nurturing, however, can only trump the nature of the Issue movie so far. Eventually the humiliations are going to pile up on Josey, and eventually she is going to take challenge her employers a courtroom. That means eventually someone--in this case, Woody Harrelson as a local hockey hero-turned-attorney seeking redemption--is going to launch into a ridiculous tirade at someone on the witness stand, resulting in a confession that in the real world would result either in the evidence being thrown out, or the opposing counsel being fired for letting it go. This will of course follow a few other speeches, and carefully placed scenes of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings on television, so that any lingering doubts we may have that sexual harassment is a Very Bad Thing may be squelched.

This is what Issue movies do. They bully you with the sheer magnitude and volume of the awfulness arising from the societal ill in question. They give their villains a sneer and a pitchfork. And they bury all the good, hard work of talented filmmakers beneath a blanket of thesis statements thicker than a Minnesota snowpack.



Directed by Niki Caro

Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek

Rated R

Salt Lake City Weekly

Having carved a large niche of young, affluent, and educated Utahns, Salt Lake City Weekly is regarded as a welcome, independent voice in an area that truly needs one. More than 1,600 outlets distribute Salt Lake City Weekly in the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 248 South Main, Salt Lake City, UT 84101
  • Phone: (801) 575-7003