North Country is a nasty bait and switch, a film with feminist aspirations that suddenly goes all Lifetime lunatic. You feel safe at first. At the Washington, D.C., screening, people from Ms. Magazine and a domestic-violence-prevention organization are on hand to cheer the film and hand out promotional junk. You sigh with anticipation, ready to watch an A-list cast get inspirationally grungy with the based-on-a-true story depiction of the nation's first class-action sexual-harassment suit. Charlize Theron has gone and rolled around in the dust to give herself more of that Monster ugly-cred, Frances McDormand busts out her Minner-soda accent: You go, girls! Inspire my popcorn-munching ass!
The film lays the victimhood on thick, right from the start. Josey Aimes (Theron) flees her wife-beating husband through the harsh Minnesota winter and winds up at her unsympathetic parents' house. Desperate to support her two kids, she takes a job at the local mine, where she and a few other down-on-their-luck women endure nonstop torment from their male co-workers, who grab, intimidate, and frighten them, scratch out nasty drawings, and leave various body-fluid souvenirs and Poocassos in the women's locker room. Pee, semen, whatever: You name it, they use it.
The film is endlessly excretory in its punishments -- and, unfortunately, these instances of harassment really did happen to the women who filed Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, from which North Country draws its inspiration. But the film focuses too narrowly on the abuse of the women, on Josey's suffering and her tremblingly fierce resistance, to the detriment of the legal precedents of the case -- and to the film's own purported politics.
“The nutty-and-slutty defense,” Josey's lawyer (an entertaining Woody Harrelson) warns her -- that's what she'll face if she decides to press charges. And unfortunately, she's already halfway there in the eyes of the townsfolk, who branded her a harlot when she became pregnant at 16. Her father has never forgiven her for her getting pregnant, and things just get worse when Josey starts questioning her treatment at the mines. The shrieking wife of a male co-worker publicly accuses Josey of trying to seduce him, and soon enough Josey's own son calls her a whore.
Bowed down under the ho yoke, Josey can barely battle on. Some of the female miners refuse to cooperate with her because they are desperate to keep their jobs; others want nothing to do with a slutty troublemaker. She tries to file suit anyway -- and here's where North Country goes eye-poppingly mad. The filmmakers run through every soap-opera cliché in the book -- rape re-enactment, a lawyer bellowing like a water buffalo, a terminally ill co-worker banging on a seat to lend support -- to distract viewers from the film's moment of cowardly untruth. For all its protestations against the nutty-and-slutty defense, North Country fires off the same slings and arrows at its protagonist. The film's climactic moment hinges on a trumped-up revelation that establishes Josey's innocent, non-skanky victimhood. Avenging angel, indeed, except that Josey is largely stripped of her defiance; she becomes a symbol of powerlessness rather than resistance.
The real-life Jenson trial dragged on for years, and the plaintiffs faced grueling examinations into their sexual and emotional histories during the damages portion of their trial. But the Jenson case also established groundbreaking legal precedents on sexual-harassment protections, the implications of which the film barely hints at in its postscript. The film buries its lede under a mess of melodramatic hoo-ha, holds its own trial for its Hester Prynne. It's a pity, because it takes the heat off where it really belongs: the institutions, workplaces, and individuals who discriminate on the basis of gender and who support the notion, as this film seems to, that women's chastity is the measure of their heroism.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.