Charlize Theron can pretty much play any role when she sets her mind to it, and when it comes to embodying the collective injustice and abuse inflicted towards female mine workers in late 80’s Minnesota, she is heartbreaking. Of course many other brilliant actors work hard to bring Niki Caro’s North Country to life, but it’s Theron who gives it the wounded centre and makes us care, not just about the issues at had but her character as well.
She plays a semi fictional character named Josey Aimes, who is loosely based on a real life woman that launched a milestone lawsuit against the corporate mining giant. Josey has escaped her abusive husband and come home to seek refuge with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) while trying to provide for her two children. The highest paying wage in the region is at the mines but from the moment she joins up she’s faced with hostility, scorn and rampant sexual harassment from the vast male work force there, and the few other female employees fare the same, unless they keep their head low. Josey and her young coworker Sherry (Michelle Monaghan) have it the worst because they’re, shall we say, easiest on the eyes, while their childhood friend Glory (Frances McDormand) keeps up a tough exterior, but in truth they are all of them fed up. As their treatment gets worse, Josey does the unthinkable and launches a high profile lawsuit against Big Mining for mistreatment and neglect, causing a shit-storm of controversy for both herself and the entire town whose survival depends on that industry. Not only that, but the case dredges up painful events from her past that involve supervisor Jeremy Renner, whose special interest in tormenting her dates back to then and explains why he radiates with guilt.
This is a brave, difficult choice for a woman to make especially when it seems like everyone is against her, but Josey is determined and Theron makes her wounded, charismatic and captivating. Woody Harrelson does a fine job as the lawyer hired to represent her, an idealistic man who isn’t afraid to unleash some hell when delivering statements or interrogating a witness because he believes it will lead to change. Jenkins is always brilliant, the arc he carries out here goes from cynically intoning that his daughter must have cheated on her husband to illicit violence like that to later openly defending his her with his own violence in court when he finds out what she has gone through. The old pro handles it gracefully and I can’t remember if he was nominated for this but he should have been. McDormand is her usual salty self and is excellent, while Sean Bean, an actor who often plays gruff, alpha male badasses is laid back and sensitive as her introvert boyfriend. Watch for great work from Xander Berkeley, Rusty Schwimmer, Corey Stoll, Brad William Henke, Jillian Armenante, Amber Heard and Chris Mulkey too.
Director Caro drew huge acclaim for her film Whale Rider a few years before, another story that dealt with a girl trying to find her place in the world and defying the men in her life. Once again this is a fantastic piece that shows her talent for filmmaking, never coming across as too much of a dramatization or too slack when it needs to cut deep. Theron is a force of nature and you can see the hurt, frustration and will to not back down burning in her eyes. This is a tough film to watch in many instances, but an extremely important one to sit through and the type that Hollywood doesn’t usually jump to green-light, at least back then anyways. Something of a masterpiece.