At the beginning of “North Country,” Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) packs her two children into the pickup truck and drives to her parents’ house in Eveleth, Minn., after being beaten up by her husband. Her parents are not happy to see her, and both her mother and father see her arrival as one more piece of evidence of Josey’s failure.
With few resources, Josey gets a job at a hairdresser. Her life changes when one of her customers, Glory (played in an extraordinary way by Frances McDormand), tells her she should get a job in the iron mines and make far more money.
Reporting to work in the mine, Josey faces more than the hell of being a miner. The mine had been forced by changes in the law (itself the result of a long struggle) to hire women and a small group of women found work there. Their fellow male miners resent them. They are seen as taking some of the few jobs available in the area for men, and even Josey’s father shares this perspective. The resentment becomes the cause of vicious harassment.
Josey decides to fight back. She goes to see the top management in Minneapolis, and is told she is fired. Glory, a shop steward, goes to meet the union’s executive board and is turned away.
Without giving away the ending, some characteristics of this movie separate it from the ordinary. In a film based on sexual harassment and rape, men are not the enemy. Throughout the film, while Josey is victimized, there are always men who want to do the right thing. Both men and women are afraid to stand up and fight back. In the end, though, it is both men and women who stand up for Josey.
This moves the film from being about the hostility of men towards women to how both men and women have to stand up against sexism, and have to stand up for each other. When they do, it shows hope. It becomes a film about possibility, and the necessity of solidarity.
Aside from Theron (who never really looks like a miner, even though her acting is impressive) the faces of all the other people in the movie are the faces of the working class — they are lined with worry and show the impact of the hard life workers lead. Unlike in most of our culture, they are not disparaged or made fun of. The film recognizes that working people look like they have been exploited, because they have been.
In the end solidarity comes because workers are able to break with their own traditionalism. The ways the mine operators try to use the traditional “values” of the mining community for their own interest is made clear, and the workers learn to stand up to them as well. It is a lesson useful for today.