Tuesday, October 25, 2005

REVIEW: North Country

I want you to go get a stopwatch. Or look at your regular watch. Or the clock on your toolbar. I want you to begin timing yourself as you read the following paragraph in boldface.

Begin timing... now. Sexual harrasment is a BAD thing. Submissive gender-roles set for women in prior generations were restrictive, hypocritical and harmful. Modern sexual harassment policies are a GOOD thing that helped working women greatly, even if it may sometimes be misused or overapplied today. End timing.

My time: 13 seconds. What's your's?

Now, consider the following: Whatever time you got is how long it took you to recieve and absorb every bit of meaning, message, moral, weight, worldview and overall worth as a film that "North Country" has to offer in 2 hours and 6 minutes.

The first question that needs to be answered about any piece of "issue" filmmaking is, put succintly: What is the purpose of this film? What does it set out to accomplish, in other words, in terms of "tackling" it's issue? In regards to "North Country," this must be asked especially sternly, as it seeks our attention for dramatizing a struggle that anyone who has held any kind of job anywhere in the last decade can tell you has been won rather decisively. Why, when all is said and done, do we need to be told this story now, in an age where the only group that has any regular fear of sexual harassment are men walking about the office on eggshells hoping to never be accused of it?

I'm aware, of course, that my question probably answers itself: That the filmmakers are aware that sexual harassment has gone from being a major issue to a punchline ("innocent guy accused of harassment via misunderstanding with workplace PC-police" is a common sitcom storyline these days) and "North Country" is meant to remind us that those endless forms we're all required to read and fill out at work are, overall, a good thing that righted a longstanding wrong for working women.

The proper way to do this, in my view, would be to tell a story concentrating on characters and relationships and trust the audience to know that making lewd attacks on female coworkers, smearing vulgarities on walls in feces and sexual assaulting a whistleblowing woman are wrong on their own. I'd add that, at all costs, it would be wise to play to the basic rights and wrongs of such issues, rather than alienating a chunk of the audience by seeming to view the central conflict as a clash of political good guys and bad guys.

So guess what they don't do?

I'll concede that the film is trying it's hardest to be more than it is, especially in the area of casting. Charlize Theron is once more called upon to immolate her near-supernatural beauty on the altar of working class grit as Josey Aimes, (the film is only loosely based on a real life case,) mother two out-of-wedlock moppets who flees an abusive husband for the home of her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) and a job in the (begrudgingly) newly-integrated mines.

The men don't like the presence of the women workers and let them know through violent, vulgar and cruel campaigns of bullying. Most of the women have learned to "live with it," even the otherwise hard-nosed union rep Glory (Frances McDormand,) but Josey has put up with too much abuse to take any more. She complains, is accused of troublemaking, is eventually fired and then brings a historic class-action suit against the company. Cue scenes of anguished shouting, eeeeevil businessmen wring their eeeevil hands about how this "could change everything!!!!" and, yes, big Oscar Clip courtroom scenes with no semblance whatsoever to an actual legal proceeding. Be sure to leave room for a Shocking Twist that most of us will see coming waaaaay to early for it to matter.

I'll give it an A for effort, at least. Niki Caro's direction is fine, though the chosen cinematography is just a bit TOO reminiscient of every other post-"Fargo" invocation of northwestern sprawl. And the cast works it's ass off to be earnest and truthful, often to varying degrees of success. Theron, for example, nails a flawless Minnesottan accent and a believable working-girl poise, but her efforts are undercut by a puzzling decision to have her looking distinctly more "made-up" than anyone else in the cast. It's as though the film is hedging it's bets that the pairing of Theron's natural porceline-pixie glow with the violence visited on her is necessary to further sell the audience, which if true is another example of heavy-handedness.

And heavy-handedness is the film's biggest flaw. It just won't trust us to already know that this is all wrong, it has to stack the deck. Josey isn't JUST a victim of workplace harassment, she's ALSO a battered wife AND her own father treats her with callous disregard, having essentially disowned her for getting pregnant in High School... AND theres a too-easy-to-guess Dark Secret about THAT which doesn't exactly reflect well on the male of species either. Thusly, before we even GET to the sexual harrassment storyline the film is already putting poor Josey through the Jim Caveziel gauntlet and beating the "men are pigs" drum. It's too much too soon, and the film suffers.

A more disasterous flaw is it's laughably blunt political posturing outside of it's own story, as the film actually features a reccurring theme of Josey watching the Anita Hill testimony on TV and drawing some sort of strength from it. Movie... seriously... are you kidding me??

Despite being done no favors by the script, the film's most real-feeling performance (I'm talking Best Supporting Actor calibre here) is by Jenkins as Josey's father Hank. We can see Hank's arc coming for miles; he must be bitter and cold for two acts only to see the light, abandon his puritanical hangups about Josey's prior indescretion and rise to her defense for the third. But Jenkins is a seasoned character professional, and he turns in a subtle, understated and 100% real-feeling turnaround that feels organic and human in a way that puts the rest of the film's "GIVE ME AN OSCAR!!!!!!!!!!!" hysterics to shame. The gradual succession of scenes visualizing Hank's change in perspective, especially when they eventually place him onscreen with Josey, are the best stuff in the film, and was this relationship the central focus we'd be looking at a major awards contender here.

I don't like having to give this film a negative review. It's earnest, and it very much wants to be important and well-liked. And I'm DEFINATELY not looking to shoot down the cause it's in support of... far from it. But the fact is, one of the reasons WHY sexual harassment has become such a punchline of an issue these last few years is that it's so often defended only by heavy-handed Lifetime-esque pieces like this. These issues deserved a better movie back when they were fresh and more relevant, and these actors and filmmakers deserve a better movie now.