Josey Aimes needs a job. Fleeing an abusive husband, she has returned to her hometown in northern Minnesota. She finds work there as a hairdresser, but quickly realizes her wages won’t support her two children. Then she learns that the local iron mine has recently been forced by a Supreme Court ruling to hire women. Soon Josey joins the few other females already working at Pearson Iron Mines, including her childhood friend, Glory.
It’s a dangerous, dirty job, but Josey’s prepared to work hard. She’s not prepared, however, for the treatment she and the other women receive at the hands of their male co-workers. The last thing the men want is women competing for scarce jobs—women who, in their estimation, have no business being anywhere near such manly work.
If these newcomers want to work the mines they’ll have to do it on the terms set by the veteran workforce. Those “terms” include degrading sexual put-downs and come-ons, crude joking, and being felt up and pushed around. Josey is persecuted particularly by a former high school boyfriend, Bobby.
How are the women supposed to react? As the union rep explains, “You work hard, you keep your mouth shut and take it like a man.”
Josey tries to do just that at first, hoping things will settle down once the guys get used to her and the other women. But that’s a pipe dream. So she complains to the union. And then management. This earns her nothing more than more hostility, which begins to spill over into her off-the-clock life: It’s spread around town that Josey is the sexual predator, not the men. (It doesn’t help that Josey already had that reputation in high school, has two children by two different men and won’t identify her son’s father.)
Finally pushed too far, Josey files a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the company and the union. To her great disappointment, the other women miners, who apparently value their jobs more than their dignity, won’t support her. That leaves Josey and her lawyer, Bill White, to face the full onslaught of the company and its lawyers by themselves—just as her already-traumatized family starts to fall apart.
It could be said that North Country exists only to rebuke those men who sexually harass and assault women. And I’ll explain how it goes about that in more detail in the “Conclusion.” But other significant positives also emerge:
Josey loves her children fiercely and is willing to make great sacrifices for them. (That’s why she initially puts up with so much abuse at the mine.) Glory and her husband, Kyle, take Josey and her children into their home, even though they apparently live with the wolf at the door, too. Kyle is a loving, gentle man who ministers to Glory through a debilitating illness. He also tries to be a father-figure to Josey’s son, Sammy, and he persists even when the troubled teen at first rebuffs his efforts.
A poignant conversation between Kyle and Sammy involves wise counsel from Kyle about the destructiveness of hate. “It takes a lot of work to hate,” he tells the boy. “Are you willing to put in that kind of time?” When Sammy calls his mother a “whore,” Kyle is quick to correct him, and he shares with him just how dedicated his mother has been to him, and the respect she deserves from him.
[Spoiler Warning] It turns out that Sammy was conceived through rape, and no one found out about it because Josey was too ashamed to tell anyone. Finally realizing she has to be honest with her son, she tells him the things that have been in her heart for years, but she’s been afraid to voice. As she does so, she makes sure he knows how much he is loved. “You were not his [the rapist’s],” she says. “You were my baby, and I chose to raise you.” The result is a magnificent illustration of how valuable and unique life is—even when its origins are the aftermath of evil. “You had nothing to do with that ugliness,” Josey tells Sammy. “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do to be your mom.” (The conversation is the beginning of healing for Mom and Son.)
Despite believing the worst about his daughter and standing by silently as she’s abused by the other miners, Josey’s dad eventually comes around and publicly defends her while rebuking his male colleagues—a gutsy move considering the atmosphere in that workplace.
Josey is never vindictive while fighting against the iron mill. She doesn’t just want wads of cash, and she doesn’t want to shut the company down.
A scene is set during a First Holy Communion ceremony at a Catholic church, with the camera focusing on a crucifix during the entry procession. The priest recites “The Body of Christ” as he gives the host to each communicant. Josey’s mom sews a communion dress for Karen, even though the girl is too young for the rite. She explains, “You’re never too young to be with God.”
While there is no nudity in this film, the sexual content is pervasive and perverse. Most intense is a flashback depiction of a high school-age Josey being raped in a classroom by a teacher. Later courtroom testimony includes a vivid—and crude—description of the rape.
Likewise, Bobby lures Josey into a remote part of the mine and then assaults her, stopping short of rape but still menacing her sexually, physically and verbally.
Other incidents of sexual harassment at the mine range from groping to obscene name-calling (the women are openly called “c—-” and the word is scrawled on the door and walls of their locker room) to leaving an anatomically correct dildo in one of the women’s lunch boxes. That same woman also finds semen on the clothes inside her locker. Verbal, written and pictorial references are made to oral sex. Prostitution and a “three-way” are joked about.
Male and female sexual organs are crudely discussed. As are the differences between the way men and women relieve themselves. Josey is forced to endure a gynecological exam before she is hired (seen from over her shoulder). Upon hearing that Josey wants to take a “man’s” job at the mine, her dad (who has worked at the mine for 30 years) asks, “You want to be a lesbian now?” Josey’s young daughter, Karen, not understanding the situation, chimes in, “I want to be a lesbian.” A girl tries to pick up Bill in a bar, saying, “I know you’re not a homo.” When he resists her come-on, she stalks away, saying, “Maybe you are a homo.”
A flashback shows Josey as a high school student with a young Bobby grabbing her rear in the hallway and then the two making out. A woman comments about Josey’s suggestive dancing, saying, “The last time I danced like that I wound up with twins.”
A TV news clip from the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings has Anita Hill (who accused Thomas of sexual harassment) telling senators how Thomas allegedly discussed his penis size.
The movie opens with Josey lying on the floor after being beaten by her husband, her face bloody and swollen. Two men get in a fistfight. Sammy yells at his mom and starts to slap/punch her. She slaps him back. A hockey game features a few vicious body checks. As referenced in “Sexual Content,” Joesy is physically assaulted and raped.
More than a dozen uses of the f-word (some in a sexual context). Just under a dozen s-words. Other profanities and crudities arise frequently. Women are called “b–ches,” “whores,” “sluts” or worse. God’s and Jesus’ names are abused more than 15 times.
Several scenes are set in a honky-tonk, with patrons guzzling beer and other alcoholic beverages. Glory brings several shot glasses of booze to her friends. People drink beer at a church social. In high school, Josey swigs what is presumably booze from a hip flask. Later, Bill drinks from a similar flask. Josey staggers into the house after a heavy night of drinking, whereupon she finds her son drunk in the bathroom with a half-empty bottle of whiskey on his lap.
Josey smokes when she’s stressed out (frequently by film’s end), and the miners’ lunchroom has a constant haze of cigarette smoke in it. A high school teacher smokes at his desk. A miner jokes about smoking a joint while on the job.
A woman miner is covered in urine and feces when the men tip over a portable toilet with her inside. The men scrawl crude graffiti on the wall of the women’s locker room using human waste. A man makes an obscene gesture toward Glory, who returns the favor.
Lashing out at Sammy, Josey yanks him out of a car and slaps at his face trying to force him to be loyal to her. When Glory begs her to stop and to think about what she’s doing, Josey blasts her friend for questioning her parenting abilities.
Josey’s dad seems to take her abusive husband’s side in the failed marriage: “Did he catch you with another man? Is that why he hit you?”
The opening of North Country says it is inspired by a true story. That would be the 1975 case of Lois Jenson, who became one of the first women to work in the iron mines of Minnesota and was the lead plaintiff in the landmark class-action lawsuit Jenson v. Eveleth Mines. That’s where the similarity ends, though. Josey Aimes and all the characters in this movie are purely fictional. Even the timeframe is different. Still, it makes you realize anew that if Lois Jenson and her fellow plaintiffs suffered even half the harassment the characters do in this movie, the real-life wrongs done to them were indeed grievous.
In the tradition of Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich, North Country sights its big guns on human indignity and injustice. To make her points stick, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) populates parts of this story with two-dimensional caricatures and lays on a fair amount of emotional manipulation. But in so doing, she makes it impossible to miss her message: Women deserve respect in the workplace—any workplace—and no human being has the right to humiliate and sexually intimidate another.
“What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those who have none?” Bill asks the court. “You stand up and tell the truth.” he answers himself. “You stand up for your friends. You stand up even when you’re all alone.”
For those who still don’t yet get this particular fact of life, it’s going to take every ounce of Caro’s manipulative mannerisms—and more—to ram it through their thick heads. My only wish is that she could have found a way to convince us that life is precious and that respect is essential without simultaneously forcing us to witness such graphic scenes of rape, assault, obscene abuse and grotesque harassment.