The lead plaintiff in Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first class action sexual-harassment suit, began work at the northern Minnesota iron mine in 1975 and, with 14 other women, won a multimillion-dollar settlement in 1998 after a grueling, sometimes humiliating legal saga. Given the battle’s enormous toll on the women’s physical and psychological health, it’s a perplexing irony that the movie “inspired by” the case suffers such a bizarre failure of nerve. Just like her film ancestor Norma Rae, North Country‘s fictionalized Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) has two kids by different fathers and is living with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek) when she takes a tough, often dangerous job. At the mine, the film’s leering army of Cro-Mag aggressors subject Josey and her female colleagues to all manner of insults, pawing, intimidation, and surprise gifts (dildo in the lunch box, semen in the locker). When Josey lodges formal complaints, the abuse only escalates, as does the false consciousness among the women co-workers—everything was fine until that loose bitch showed up!—and even her own son calls her a whore.
Having established Josey as the focus of the entire iron range’s enmity, the filmmakers panic, and North Country spectacularly self-destructs in a climactic courtroom free-for-all. (The extended cacophony entails lawyer Woody Harrelson screaming, “YELLOW OR RED!” during cross-examination and miner Frances McDormand, diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, thumping a bench in mute appeal.) When it’s revealed on the stand (spoiler alert!) that Josey’s older child is the product of rape by her high school teacher (the crime is duly re-enacted), the irrelevant disclosure inspires a tide-turning show of solidarity from her heretofore dubious audience. Why? Have they gone Spartacus because she’s more palatable as an object of pity than of defiance? Or more insidiously, does her testimony become credible the moment the scarlet letter for Teen Slut falls from her chest? No answers are forthcoming, but one thing’s certain—we like our victims chaste (cf. The Contender, Philadelphia) or we don’t like them at all.