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North Country   C

Warner Bros. Pictures / Participant Productions

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Michael Seitzman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek.

Review by Rob Vaux

A friend of mine calls them POBs (pronounced "pahbs"), which stands for Pretentious Oscar Bait (among other less demure names). POBs are made with a great deal of enthusiasm and technical flourish, and usually attract top-flight talent both in front of and behind the camera. They embrace socially conscientious topics in an effort to say something meaningful, and in the process advance the lofty goal of film as art. But the results are rarely as important or profound as their creators wish them to be. Tackling a controversial topic requires upsetting or alienating part of the audience -- in the theaters as well as at the Academy ballot box -- and Hollywood just isn't set up to do that. So they waffle. They dodge. They address their topics from standpoints that everyone can agree upon -- racism is bad, for example, or it's a tragedy when people die of AIDS -- and in the process end up saying very little at all. The results are a lot of bombastic speeches and self-righteous admonitions, challenging no one and limiting themselves to some "Isn't it awful?" hand-wringing. More often than not, they clean up on Oscar night.

North Country is perhaps an archetypical POB: skillful filmmaking standing on a soapbox and pandering to the broadest audience possible. The engine driving it is star Charlize Theron, playing an Iron Range miner whose appalling on-the-job treatment motivates her to file the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the country. Theron threaded an amazing needle with 2003's Monster, and her flawless, terrifying metamorphosis in that film paved the way for fare such as this. Here, she settles into more expected POB form: adopting a working-class haircut, smearing her face with dirt, and relying upon a passable Minnesota accent to hide the fact that she's still the same sexy starlet underneath. It becomes harder for her to sell the character, turning her Josey Aimes from a flesh-and-blood human being into a cipher for Suffering with Dignity.

And the oppression she endures falls into the same trap, though the early scenes are rife with potential. Director Niki Caro paints a chillingly realistic picture of life in the male-dominated iron mines, where women are subjected to an endless array of disgusting treatment. In her hands, the problem becomes more than just a few bad apples. Sexism is part of the culture, a world where men do the heavy lifting and women stay home and mop their brows afterwards. It's seen in the bars and taverns, where a girl questions her would-be dance partner's sexuality for not pursuing her aggressively enough. It's seen in the homes and playgrounds, where ruined marriages are blamed not on the husband's wandering eye, but on the woman who unwillingly drew it. And it's seen in the workplace, where "equal treatment" means smearing feces in the women's locker room and copping a feel without so much as a by-your-leave. Under Caro's ministrations, the first hour becomes a complex and intriguing study of how discrimination begins and the horrid ways in which it is excused as no big deal. Would that she could carry that through to the end.

Soon enough, however, the complexities are winnowed down, leaving a standard "us vs. them" POB in its place. Bad guys are identified, heroes lionized, and as the lawsuit moves forward, North Country falls into a very well-worn rut. The legal drama cedes time to domestic interplay between Josey and her estranged kids, which functions decently within the plot, but says little that a thousand after-school specials haven't said before. Every name actor gets a chance to deliver a dose of self-righteous dialogue, while the courtroom climax bungles its attempt to bring things to a crescendo. The penultimate scene is a cringe-inducing disaster, combining thunderously implausible cross-examinations with some head-scratching "stand and be counted" gestures that strain both credibility and the audience's power to keep a straight face. By manipulating the audience so brazenly, North Country sacrifices its early sense of daring, and the loss quickly stymies its efforts to make a cognizant point.

And what does it gain in return? A handsome production to be sure. A cast of good actors -- including Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and Woody Harrelson -- doing their best to lend depth to the proceedings. Some ugly scenes of sexism and the tongue-clucking assurance, that yes, indeed, it's really shitty when stuff like that happens. But somewhere along the way, North Country abandons the notion of seriously grappling with the issue in favor of the safe, the well-known, and the unimpeachable. It makes worthwhile points about gender discrimination, to be sure. But then again, so did Anchorman... and you don't see that movie waiting for a pat on the head.

Review published 10.21.2005.

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