North Country
dir. Caro
Opens Fri Oct 21
Various Theaters

The new film from populist Whale Rider director Niki Caro, North Country trades in the previous movie's mild exoticism, substituting snowbound Minnesota miners for indigenous New Zealanders. It prides itself on the same brand of irrefutable anti-sexist arguments. (In the former, girls can be leaders, too; this time around, women deserve to be free from sexual harassment.) But where the older film was sufficiently subtle, treating the retrograde village elders with a modicum of respect, North Country features irredeemable male chauvinist pigs at every possible turn.

When Josey (a dirt-smeared Charlize Theron) flees her home after a severe beating from her abusive husband, she moves in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek, giving nuanced performances despite their constrained roles). Soon she discovers she'd like a job of her own, and in her 1980s small town, there's but one source of income. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, Josey and a cohort of female peers are permitted to work the coal mines. Their first day is torture, and things only get worse—there are lewd comments and near-rapes aplenty, but the most popular harassment strategies involve excrement and bodily fluids.

Theron rarely makes it through a scene without her eyes filling with bravely suppressed tears, and the film keeps flashing forward to the courtroom drama that will bring her vindication. Unfortunately, the film blows its trial-by-jury conceit early, with a truly climactic showdown in the miners' union hall. The actual court dramatization (involving wanton witness badgering and spectators rising in unison) is melodramatic and contrived. The physical landscape in North Country is inhuman, inhospitable, and desolate; in such a context, it's strange that the plot should proceed so confidently toward humanism, harmony, and justice.