Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron in North CountryNORTH COUNTRY

At a serious, well-intentioned "issue movie," you will periodically hear from a sect of the audience whom I refer to as the tsk-ers. Tsk-ers are especially vocal at works in which the leading figure - always righteous and noble, and prone to suffering in silence - finds him- or (generally) herself experiencing painful hardships in the cause of Doing the Right Thing, while their families, friends, and the world at large all turn against them.

In Niki Caro's North Country, you hear from the tsk-ers a lot. The film, "inspired by" a true story, is a fictionalized account of the first class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit to be filed in America, and it's filled to brimming with sequences in which our heroine, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), endures the monstrous bullying of male co-workers and the frightened silence of female ones - and the tsk-ers in the crowd have a field day. They cluck their tongues and sigh and (probably) shake their heads in moral outrage; if they were distributed in the theatre, this crowd would happily sign petitions. "Tsk, tsk, tsk," you sense them thinking, "that poor woman. I just can't believe it. What a shame."

Well, I also thought "I just can't believe it" and "What a shame" at North Country, though not, I'd venture, for the same reasons as the tsk-ers.

The film is set in northern Minnesota circa 1989, when Aimes, an abused wife with two young children, finally decides to take action, leaving her spouse and choosing to support her family with a hellish job in the iron mine where her father (Richard Jenkins) works. The mine's male workers - who outnumber the women 30 to one - aren't having it, however; mining, they believe, is men's work, and through verbal and physicial intimidation and even assault, they conspire to oust Aimes from her vocation. (Theron's physical perfection is used rather shrewdly here, as the movie implicity suggests that Aimes' beauty engenders worse treatment from the men than the others receive.) North Country is about the strength Aimes finds as she stands up to her oppressors and earns the respect of her family, friends, and, in fact, the entire town, and there's really only one major problem with it: It feels like a load of crap.

As opposed to the tsk-ers, some of us in the audience bristle upon seeing the words "inspired by a true story" at a movie's start, because it establishes a too-convenient shield against criticism; if you point out that scenes don't feel realistic or that character motivations seem, at best, unlikely, you're invariably met with, "But this really happened!" Then why do all of North Country's events feel like events that only happen in the movies? Once you understand the movie's trajectory, you can click off its plot points as if on a scorecard, and the film is so one-sided in its purpose that it has absolutely no variety, and no connection to the messy intricacies of true experience. The movie reinforces commonly held (correct) viewpoints but doesn't have the courage to challenge them, because it can't - abuse of women, both at home and at the workplace, is indefensible. Is this anybody's idea of a newsflash? The movie, in its incredibly earnest way, is one-dimensional, simplistic, and deeply phony. (In one sequence, Aimes is berated by a woman who believes that Aimes slept with her husband, and everyone in the venue pauses to witness our heroine's humiation. Yeah, because disturbances never break out at hockey rinks.)

It would be hard to argue, though, that the movie isn't well-made. Caro brings to the film the same visual acuity she displayed in her beloved Whale Rider, and she knows how to shape scenes for maximum portent; every new day on the job feels like it could be Aimes' last. But Caro can't give conviction to Michael Seitzman's hopelessly glib screenplay, which stacks the cards so neatly in Aimes' favor that North Country becomes void of anything resembling real life. The dramatic declarations are too on-the-nose; the punchlines are too sitcom-cute; the bad guys, of which there are many, are too shifty-eyed and menacing (somehow you just know that thuggish character actor Chris Mulkey will show up as one of movie's bigger sons of bitches). You could skip the movie entirely and still correctly predict its entire storyline arc. Despite its good intentions, North Country doesn't feel like it's based on life; it feels like it's based on movies based on life.

As Aimes, Theron is effective enough, I guess, but she spends so much time red-eyed with grief that you eventually notice that her role has no dimensions whatsoever. As presented in North Country, Aimes is merely a Noble Sufferer, and although she's a capable actress, Theron is capable of much more than she's asked for here; she never displays the personality necessary to make Aimes more than a victim.

Her gifted co-stars don't fare much better. Playing a miner who succumbs (far too quickly, I thought) to the ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease, Frances McDormand lends the film her trademark wit and concentration, but the role is too formulaic - is it tasteless to admit that, with the heavy Minnesota accents, McDormand's scenes often play like Fargo with a frowny face? - and while Sissy Spacek has matured into grandmother roles beautifully, she has little to offer other than looking peevish. The best performance comes from Richard Jenkins, who suggests worlds of experience that Seitzman's screenplay doesn't come close to touching, yet even he is eventually thwarted; Jenkins' finest acting moments, when this gruff papa finally stands behind his daughter, come at the crux of the movie's most depressingly incredulous sequence.

Beyond its waste of talent, though, North Country is infuriating because it doesn't give the audiences any chance to think for themselves. Everything that happens is spelled out with utter obviousness; audiences find themselves experiencing moral outrage because that's the only thing the movie wants to inspire, which makes North Country feel repetitive and even, in the end, remedial. The tsk-ers, though, will probably love it. You know who you are.


Keira Knightley in DominoDOMINO

God, I hate Tony Scott. With his nausea-inducing hyper-kineticism on full throttle, the Idiot Auteur's Domino, as it spins its violent tale of glam bounty hunter Domino Harvey, is like the cinematic equivalent of the bus in Speed; if it slowed below 60 miles an hour, the damn thing would explode. The movie is beyond asinine, and Keira Knightley, God bless her, is hilariously miscast in the lead. But Richard Kelly's script is surprisingly clever; there are some sharp comic bits with weirdo con brio Christopher Walken, Mena Suvari, and a sensationally enjoyable Mo'Nique; and, much as I'm loath to admit it, Scott stages this action-porn with enormous gusto, even if none of it makes a lick of sense. By the time the closing credits rolled, I was forced to admit that, as repellent and ridiculous and downright incoherent as Domino is ... it was pretty damned entertaining. Now I really hate Tony Scott.

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