Title: North Country
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriters: Michael Seitzman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Jeremy Renner, Frances McDormand
I am not sure, but I think North Country may have been written in a fit of blinding rage. This could conceivably not be a bad thing. Sincerity tends to be a plus, and to be honest, one vibe I decidedly did not get from Niki Caro’s follow-up to her acclaimed (but ever-so-overrated) Whale Rider is that of a glossy, glossed-over prestige piece (like, say, Cinderella Man, my grudge of the year). But while this is certainly a real film, deeply felt and even personal, in its way, it is also not a very good one. Caro’s anger is palpable, but the movie feels rash, bizarrely sloppy; there are stretches where it builds nicely, but eventually it comes as close as any movie ever has to simply exploding right there on the screen.
Some will consider North Country‘s true story to be a non-story; others will see it as merely a precursor to an onslaught of frivolous litigation. As far as I’m concerned, Caro and her screenwriter do a nice job of framing this material in such a way as to make us naturally and immediately sympathetic to the protagonist, who initiated a landmark sexual harassment suit against a Minnesota coal mine; it’s done at the cost of ambiguity, but then, I’m not sure there was ever any ambiguity to begin with. If nothing else, I certainly bought the set-up.
Charlize Theron, presumably having earned the role by way of her Oscar-winning Monster performance, plays Josie Aimes, the fictionalized version of the real-life woman who filed the first landmark sexual harassment case against the Minnesota coal mine where she worked. Theron is persuasive, though I bet she’s relieved along with the rest of us that her next role is the action heroine Aeon Flux; after that one-two punch of wrenching roles, she deserves to have a bit of fun. I generally enjoyed her take on this character; she’s volatile, and sometimes hysterical — one post-hockey match scene, in particular, doesn’t speak well of the character — but she stays grounded, somehow; any number of scenes could have degenerated into utter melodramatic chaos, but Theron and the mostly intelligent screenplay keep it on the level.
One wonders, then, what happened to the last act, which pretty much epitomizes melodramatic chaos, hysteria, and several other things, none of which are intelligence. Throughout all of the preceding, the movie had been constantly, sometimes annoyingly flashing forward to the courtroom scene that is to be the culmination of the story. Then, when we finally reach the pivotal moment, North Country decides that at long last, it’s time to grandstand. And grandstand it does, busting out everything from “I am Spartacus” to the slow clap, while Woody Harrelson, as the kindly attorney with the haunted past, lectures us on the importance of standing by your friends.
After this fair bit of ludicrousness, the movie wraps up quickly — so quickly, in fact, that it’ll make your head spin. It’s just bizarre: immediately after the courtroom scene, we are informed that the protagonist and her son are now “rich” (presumably as a joke, since a few seconds later we see a title card saying that the women involved in the lawsuit received a “modest financial settlement), then there is one final scene that suggests something really weird about the nature of the relationship between Josie and her son (oh, so now everything is fine?), and then the credits roll. What?
Meanwhile, the movie throws in all sorts of stuff around the edges, to varying degrees of success. There is an absolutely excruciating subplot involving Frances McDormand’s saintly character slowly dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease; it’s painful to watch, though I couldn’t come up with a purpose for it, aside from providing yet another triumphant moment during the courtroom climax. An inordinate amount of time is dedicated to the Woody Harrelson character, but that ultimately seems to go nowhere.
North Country‘s main strength is in the way it shows us these people as shallow, petty and miserable and goes on to add layers of depth to some of them, while exposing others for the shallow, petty, miserable people they really are. Painting everyone with the latter brush would have been unconvincing, but the screenplay reveals an ability to be multi-dimensional while suggesting — correctly, I think — that some people simply are not. The most courageous, heartbreaking character here is not Theron’s Josie but her father, played by the great Richard Jenkins as a man who belatedly figures out what his priorities are, and is filled with shame, despair, and at the same time renewed resolve. It’s a wonderful performance, and an impressive bit of screenwriting; if only the whole of the film were as carefully considered.