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Grade: BNorth Country (2002)

Director: Niki Caro

Stars: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Richard Jenkins

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: R

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You know, a woman like you should be at home,
That's where you belong,
Watching out for someone who loves you true
Who would never do you wrong.
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there's no way to tell by that first kiss.
What's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?

Born in the heart of Minnesota's Mesabi iron range himself, Bob Dylan's lyrical questions readily fit the context of Niki Caro's North Country, which is loosely based on Lois Jensen's landmark 1984 sexual harassment case against Eveleth Mines. Caro's generous selection of Dylan material for the soundtrack is one of the better decisions the director of Whale Rider makes for his latest project, as the genius songwriter's roots spring from this north country and the lyrics emphasize the film's themes. At least the outstanding music distinguishes this movie from other similar projects like Silkwood and Norma Rae. Make no mistake about it; this is an issue movie that blatantly examines power and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Reset a few years later to more conveniently dovetail with Anita Hill's graphic testimony about Clarence Thomas, North Country begins with abused wife Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) moving out with her two kids to her parent's house in northern Minnesota. De-glamorized (but not to the extent she was in Monster), Theron's character soon begins working in the mine to support her family since it pays six times what she can earn waitressing.

A lifelong mine worker, Josey's father isn't keen on the idea but he's been embarrassed of his daughter ever since high school when she bore her first child out of wedlock. Contrasting with beautiful overhead shots of clouds and white smoke emanating from the mine, the surface environment is dark, gritty, and foreboding--populated with the grossest male chauvinist pigs ever gathered together for an ensemble cast. No subtlety here, these ogres shout out sexual retorts, suggestively grab their crotches, hide dildos in the women's lunch boxes, and graffiti their "powder room."

Josey does find support from union representative and friend Glory (Frances McDormand, delightfully reprising her Fargo accent), who is married to one of the rare non-sexist men in northern Minnesota in Kyle (Sean Bean). Glory has fought in the past to gain some employment gains for women and she continues to do what she can, but doesn't see how they can deal with the sexual harassment given the power structure. Josey mistakenly thinks that the suave, well dressed mine owner will sympathetically hear her grievances only to discover that he is much like those Senators that didn't really listen to Anita Hill.

Like any melodrama, it's easy to tell the good "guys" from the bad as we travel through the predictable narrative. Caro has his heart in the right place, so North Country will resonate with mainstream viewers that are certain to agree with the film's feminist sentiments. That's why distributors banked on the film's star power and formula "happy ending" to bring an arthouse project to multi-plexes to recoup the investment for excellent acting talent and high production value.

As far as shelf life, Caro's film is destined for the same region as other single issue films and may be brought out whenever workplace sexual harassment comes up. It's not a bad film and has a few memorable touching moments the father's reconciliation with his daughter, a mother's first heartfelt talk with her troubled son, and McDormand's physically challenged character continuing to fight on and tell a manipulative lawyer to "fuck off." And there's all those Dylan songs playing over the snow covered and gritty landscape, reminding us all to continue fighting for the things that are important:

The gravel road is bumpy,
It's a hard road to ride,
But there's a clearer road a-waitin'
With the cinders on the side.

Trails of troubles,
Roads of battles,
Paths of victory,
We shall walk.

 


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