North Country (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Director Niki Caro does about as much as artistically possible with her genre in North Country. And the movie still -- very often -- is annoying.
The genre in question is the Earnestly Political Legal Drama, and thereby is Caro's work here doomed to kinda-OK-ness.
Earnestly Political Legal Dramas -- like this one, based as it is on a real-life landmark sexual harassment class action case -- can pretend all they want to that they are about the characters and their journeys, but they're not. They are about an Issue, and movies about an Issue are annoying. It's part of their DNA; they can't help it any more than Hilton sisters can resist their genetic skankiness.
When they wallow blankly in their self-importance, such films are insufferable. Something as stylish as North Country is frustrating in an entirely different way.
Charlize Theron polishes off her Oscar-winner cachet here as Josey Aimes, a mother of two determined to leave her abusive husband. But good, family-supporting jobs are hard to come by in northern Minnesota in 1989, so Josey signs on to work at the local iron mine.
It's still mostly a boys' club, and the boys like it that way. They like it that way so much that they entertain their female co-workers by fondling them, writing abusive language on their locker room door, and generally providing evidence that man did, in fact, evolve from lower primates.
It's a world of clearly marked gender roles, and Caro's sense of this world extends to her use of cinematographer Chris Menges -- who renders the Minnesota landscape a prison grey -- and Minnesota native Bob Dylan as the soundtrack's dominant voice. There's filmmaking prowess all over North Country, starting with an engrossing in medias res opening.
A filmmaker's nurturing, however, can only trump the nature of the Issue movie so far. Eventually the humiliations are going to pile up on Josey, and eventually she is going to challenge her employers in a courtroom.
That means eventually someone -- in this case, Woody Harrelson, as a local hockey hero-turned-attorney seeking redemption -- is going to launch into a ridiculous tirade at someone on the witness stand, resulting in a confession that in the real world would result either in the evidence being thrown out, or the opposing counsel being fired for letting it go.
This will, of course, follow a few other speeches, and carefully placed scenes of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on television, so any lingering doubts we may have that sexual harassment is a Very Bad Thing may be squelched.
This is what Issue movies do. They bully you with the sheer magnitude and volume of the awfulness arising from the societal ill in question. They give their villains a sneer and a pitchfork. And they bury all the good, hard work of talented filmmakers beneath a blanket of thesis statements thicker than a Minnesota snowpack.
-- Scott Renshaw