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North Country

A movie directed by Niki Caro

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An issue movie that just doesn't quite matter

  • May 17, 2007
Pros: Somewhat compelling story

Cons: An issue difficult to care about explained in a haphazard way

The Bottom Line: I recommend the film for people who like issue movies; if you don't, nothing is compelling in this one for you.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

First there was Norma Rae then there was Silkwood. The first movie was about a woman’s attempt to have a union brought to a textile mill. The second was about a woman ready to expose a nuclear power plant for improper management on multiple levels.

North Country combines significant portions of both of these films. A question I rarely ask kept coming up while I watched it to the point where I could not let it go: did this movie need to be made? North Country is an issue movie—movies that are love stories, horror stories, thrillers, h*ll even break-dancing or roller skating movies never pass my ‘should this have been made’ filter because their purpose is entertainment—you may not like Break Dance 2: Electric Boogaloo but you can’t deny its purpose was entertainment.

Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron) is an abused wife who escapes her husband. She lives in small town northern Minnesota where the only industry that pays well at all is mining—men’s work as the movie would have us believe. She and a group of other women are hired at the mine. The rest of the film jumps between Josie in court and Josie and the other women suffering abuse at the hands of their male counterparts. The film is set in 1989, but the behavior of the townsfolk is such that the time means almost nothing at all (except that it is coincidental with the Anita Hill hearings). It is based on a true story

Did this film need to be made? I don’t think so. I’m not saying that what Ms. Aimes did was wrong; I am not saying that the women who finally stood up to the powers that be were wrong or lacked courage; finally, I am not implying that sexism and sexual harassment are problems that have been solved. What I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for this particular issue movie to be made now.

Issue movies are difficult to deal with anyway. Unless you are personally interested in the events portrayed in a movie like this, it is impossible to know how much “true” comes out since it is merely “based” on actual events. So, issue movies tend to be an issue wrapped inside a conflict locked inside one or more unnecessarily complex love stories or sexual escapades—you have to add this sort of ‘human’ drama to the story so an audience has an excuse to pay between $7 and $14 to sit through what is otherwise a weak documentary.

The film has much that should make you angry. It is one thing to pick on an adult who is taking on the powers that be, but when the children of this woman start baring some of the abuse, then you know things have gone too far. North Country contains a surfeit of that and all of the tension that is concomitant. The problem is that, since it was difficult for me to invest much emotionally, my anger lasted only so long as the scene.

All of the performances are ok, but none of them are particularly stellar either. Ms. Theron is an outstanding actress—she is the female Brad Pitt in that she takes roles where she can erase her beauty thereby removing it from the equation so the public has to deal with her as an actress and not just another pretty starlet—but there is nothing truly compelling about this role. Her mother is played by Sissy Spacek. To me, Ms. Spacek is one of the three or four doyennes whose career is into its fourth decade, but this is a role written for a much weaker actress so it’s like having a bullhorn stand in for a small megaphone. The same can be said of the other roles. The film had some major players: Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Frances McDormand, but it really didn’t need anyone of that caliber.

I wanted to like it and looked for reasons to, but I just couldn’t make myself care.

The review is over, but a friend of mine and I had a discussion last night that I think fits this movie well.

My friend believes in a form of collective consciousness and a collective intelligence. Further, he believes that humans will engage in and create systems that benefit the majority of the people.

I called bulls**t. North Country is a perfect example of why I think the idea of efficient systems created by humans to be more the exception than the rule. In the case of this film, the only issue was whether women belonged doing mining work which is about as exclusively male as football. It isn’t whether the women were having to do less; they were not taking jobs from anyone else. So they could not be considered a net liability or even a net gain to the mining company in just black and white numbers. They became a liability to the mining company because the men decided they wanted to spend portions of their days harassing the women so they would leave.


No reason other than they wanted the mine to remain boys’ town. In other words, this is a system supported by a tradition with little meaning and less reason for the amount of energy spent trying to bring the tradition back.

The women who sued finally won the case. As the film says in titles at the end, the women got a “modest” settlement but gained their real desire of having a sexual harassment clause in the contract. Just because they got it doesn’t mean that the abuse and harassment were going to stop magically; it just meant that a woman with enough guts had a system for redress—this doesn’t mean she automatically wins anyway. So there is this artificial system in place added on to an already inefficient system defined only by the inertia of tradition.

Western man, anyway, has plenty of food and safe drinking water. Given this, the only incentive for creating a new, more efficient system in place over one that has existed for a generation or more is exactly nil. Social harmony is placed over efficiency all the time in more ways than I can count. Stoplights, speed limits, unions, food safety rules, clean air regulations, child labor laws, mandatory education up to a certain age, and on and on. You might see a benefit to all or some of these, but not everyone does. Consider the following. If we had no top speed limit would the cost to the society as a whole be more or less efficient than having one that is only somewhat enforced to begin with (another nod to social desires over enforcement of essentially arbitrary rules). Is the time saved by people going 120MPH a net gain or loss to the extra amount of fuel used to maintain those speeds? Is the time saved a net gain or loss when taking fatalities into consideration; would we have more, fewer, or the same number of fatalities due to a lack of a speed limit? Education and labor laws with regard to children remove a layer of inexpensive unskilled labor especially for companies whose bottom line is created by more manual labor than not. If a high school education no longer really means much, then what is the incentive for staying in school? Would we not be better served by creating trade schools for kids coming out of middle school who would be unlikely to benefit from reading Beowulf, learning historical dates, learning a foreign language, or learning math beyond basic algebra? Then they could enter the workforce at 16 where they can be paid significantly less than someone twice their age. Yes the long term benefits to society may be more costly, but for investors in these companies, child labor could be a bright spot in their portfolio.

I advocate neither child labor nor a free range for speed limits or a removal of food, air, and water laws; however, they do add layers of complexity to what could otherwise be a far more efficient society.

Tradition trumps efficiency every time except in times of economic crisis or war. And even during those times, tradition isn’t ended just suspended, and sometimes not even that. North Country’s issue just happened to coincide with a conversation; otherwise I wouldn’t have added this part.


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More North Country reviews
review by . December 19, 2008
I bought North Country because it was on sale for about $3 and because it's similar in theme to Erin Brockovich in that it chronicles a group of people's struggle to bring a large company to justice.     However, this film just didn't cut it for me. Basically, for 80% of the movie, you follow the main character and her own personal struggles (starting over after a divorce) and a group of female employees' struggle with controlling sexual harassment at work. Yet, unlike Erin Brockovich, …
review by . August 20, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Thinking 'North Country' would not live up to the hype, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so involved in the thick of a gripping gender drama. Alternating between the witness stand and the reenactment of the recall of the plaintiff, the film focuses on the life of Josie Aimes, (Charlize Theron) with her groundbreaking story of sexual harassment. Living on the iron range of Minnesota, the lifestyle of everyone bears all the elements with true grit. Josie, who finds her ex- unbearable and …
review by . July 24, 2006
What a curious beast is the homo sapien -- of either gender. And yet at some point in our lives, if we are to be honest, haven't we all ducked behind some wall of safety, even when it means an increase to our own suffering? It is one of the more shadowy sides of human nature. We are hurt, and yet when our peers, equally hurt alongside us, we still side with an enemy rather than confront the unspeakable. History is filled to bursting with such cases.    "North Country," directed …
review by . June 19, 2006
I could say that this movie is good because of cast reasons and there's some things in this movie you can't miss. But being good for cast reasons doesn't make a film good; "North Country" is a regular piece. The only problem with films taken from real life events is that they need to be true to the time and space where those events occurred. Director, Nikki Caro, seems to be more worried about getting tears out of our eyes than about showing us she's directing something that actually happened.   &nbs …
review by . February 23, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
NORTH COUNTRY is a tough movie to watch - and that is why it is so fine and important. The story exudes out of the characters surrounding the first class action suit for sexual harassment in the workplace and it would be difficult to imagine a more dour and gritty depiction of what women iron miners faced in Northern Minnesota than that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has molded out of Clara Bingham's book and Michael Seitzman's screenplay. Though overly long (in excess of two hours) the film does …
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A sterling cast and vivid direction giveNorth Countryan emotional heft to match its political convictions. Charlize Theron (Monster) plays Josey Aimes, who goes to work at a Minnesota steel mine after splitting with her violent husband.
Frances McDormand and Charlize
Theron in North Country.
But the job proves to be almost as harrowing as her marriage; the male miners, resentful of women taking jobs, verbally abuse and play humiliating pranks on the female miners. After being physically assaulted by a coworker, Josey tries to fight against the harassment, but none of the other women will join her case for fear that things will only get worse.North Country, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), makes the women's experience palpable for the audience without overdoing it. But the lawsuit is only part of the movie; the gut impact ofNorth Countrycomes from the devastating effect the lawsuit has on Josey's family, friends, and coworkers--thanks to an incredible ensemble cast that includes Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings), Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under), Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt), and the always powerful Frances McDormand (Fargo,Mississippi Burning). The courtroom histrionics don't always ring true, but the family conflict is riveting and deeply moving. Based on the bookClass Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. --Bret Fetzer

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