Reel Opinions

Monday, October 31, 2005

North Country

North Country is a movie loosely based (the film is wise enough to say "inspired by a true story" at the beginning) on the very first class action sexual harassment lawsuit which occurred back in 1984. Some people rightfully find it disturbing that it took so long for such a thing to happen. What I find equally disturbing is how such a manipulative and one-note movie such as this is being championed, and is even being considered for Oscars come next year. North Country is a movie so single-minded in its determination that its almost appalling. It's so desperate to make us cheer for its underdog heroine that it falls back on almost every feel good cliche in the book, including the ever famous "slow clap" (a person gives a speech, there's silence for about a half a minute, then one person in the back of the room starts clapping slowly, leading to everyone else in the room to join in) and even an "I am Spartacus"-style scene where everyone starts standing up to show their support and approval while the music swells on the soundtrack. North Country has a lot of good performances and good intentions, but the heavy-handed melodrama of the scripting and the overall one-sidedness of it all sinks the movie like the overweight stone it is.

Charlize Theron plays Josey, a blue collar woman who decides to pack up her children and leave her abusive husband in the film's opening scene. She moves in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek), and starts desperately looking for work so she can afford to live on her own. While working as a hair stylist at the local beauty parlor, she happens to come across an old friend named Glory (Frances McDormand) who is currently working at the town mine. Josey is attracted to the promise of big pay, and decides to take the job so she can get a house of her own.

It does not take Josey long to realize that she and the other new female workers are not welcome there. They are ridiculed almost from day one, have sexual-themed pranks played on them, have slurs and obscenities whispered and shouted at them in the hall, and ultimately, Josey is sexually abused while on the job. She tries to complain to the higher ups in the company, but they do not seem interested, and simply tell her to deal with it or quit, as they don't feel women belong in the mine in the first place. What's worse, the men of the mine begin to turn the entire town against Josey, making it seem like it's her own fault these things happen to her. Josey wants to sue the company, and turns to a local lawyer named Bill (Woody Harrelson) for help. He's doubtful it will work, but eventually agrees, and thus begins Josey's plight to let the truth be told, and to make her fellow female co-workers believe in themselves enough to make a difference.

North Country is undoubtedly well made, thanks to the expert direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and an overall strong cast that includes some standout performances, particularly Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. Unfortunately, it all seems kind of pointless in the end, as you can almost predict everything that's going to happen before it does. This is a movie that plays by a strict set of rules set down by hundreds of movies just like it, and does very little to nothing to truly stand out in the crowd. The movie is obviously trying for realism, but the film is so one-sided that it winds up shooting itself in the foot. Apparently this town that Josey lives in is the male chauvinist capital of the world, as there seems to be only one man in the movie who truly believes in her. And believe it or not, it's not Woody Harrelson's lawyer character. I never got the sense that he was truly in her corner, he only takes her case for his own personal gain, because he thinks he will make history if he wins. Their working relationship was never established strong enough to me, so I always got a sense that Harrelson's character was only being supportive to her out of duty.

The movie tries to explain the town's reaction to Josey by expressing that she had an active sexual history growing up, and had her first child when she was a teenager after she was raped by a teacher. Everyone, including her father and even her son, views her as a blemish to society because of her sexual past. They kind of go to extremes here, just short of lynching the girl in public. Of course, eventually her son and her father see the light and stand by her at the end, but even then, their change of heart seems forced and sudden. Once again, I did not believe that these people were supporting her out of respect, I felt they were supporting her because the script required them to. This is a movie that plays all the right notes, but doesn't know how to put them together in a successful way. When people change their minds and decide to support Josey, it seems illogical and awkward, as if it were an out of the blue decision.

A good example of this is Josey's father. Throughout the entire film, he looks down upon her, and calls her a disgrace to the family. He has a falling out with his wife over the subject, who walks out on him, and leaves him a note (which we do not even get to see the contents of). The next scene, Josey is giving a speech about her views to all the miners, and is practically being booed off the stage. All of a sudden, her father is supportive, standing up for her, and telling her how proud he is of her. He goes from seeing her as a disgrace to fatherly pride in the span of 2 minutes without any explanation. Josey does not even seem surprised or question his sudden change of heart, which kind of kills the impact of the scene. The fact that we do not even see her father and mother reconcile (the father simply picks up his wife at a motel, and they drive home together without saying a word) also makes them getting back together seem somewhat forced and unnatural.

North Country is a movie so single-minded in its determination that it's almost comical. It's simply Josey's view, while every single other person in the town is a chauvinistic jerk, or hates her because of her sexual past. I guess the screenplay is trying to play up the notion that when a woman is sexually harassed, it feels like they are alone in the world, and fighting a losing battle. However, I think this movie takes its own ideas a bit to the extreme. It's all in the name of melodrama, and that's what ultimately sinks the film. And that's a shame, because there are a number of scenes that hint at a much better movie. I must give director Niki Caro credit for pulling no punches, and fully embracing the adult subject matter, giving us some very powerful and disturbing scenes. But then, the movie goes right back into underdog melodrama, and it made my heart drop every time.

North Country is far from a terrible movie, but its overly simplistic views of its own topic make it less than it strives to be. If the film didn't feature such a cliche-ridden climax and aimed more for realism rather than melodrama, they could have really had something here. As it stands, North Country is an interesting, yet underwhelming, little "against all odds" story that just did not click with me.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger