North Country is one of those "See it for the great performance and not much else" movies, although this one doesn't depend on Charlize Theron to quite the degree that some of these films do. There's a whole group of great actors supporting her, all at the top of their game: Frances McDormand (trotting out her "Minnesota Nice" accent from Fargo and giving me some inappropriate giggles early on), Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean (in a rare non-asshole role).

Inspired by the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in American jurisprudence, the film is about as bleak as courtroom dramas get: Josey Aimes (Theron) is abused and humiliated in unbearable ways, and her female coworkers are treated even worse. When she finally stands up for her rights, it's in no Erin Brockovich or Norma Rae "rah-rah" way. It's a film that's not afraid to say that this country systematically fucks over women, and a couple of court cases aren't enough to fix that. The end is "happy" in that it is not sad, and good things happen to good people, but there's isn't any emotional release. There can't be. Josey has suffered too much, and we have suffered watching her.

Niki Caro does some very good things as a director, keeping the pacing swift while never rushing through the story, giving us plenty of time to feel how miserable life is for these women. But the real stars are Theron, showing the vast extent of Josie's pains without ever once descending into a weepy scenery-banquet, and cinematographer Chris Menges. Not since that other movie set in the 1989 Minnesotan winter has snow seemed so oppressive. This is a bleak film: all grays and sluggish browns. It's an ugly landscape, and it makes sense that the culture in the film would grow from something so barren.

The film has a big "but." As I said, and as the film makes no effort to hide, "inspired by" does not mean "based on," and except for the basic outlines, most of this story has been fictionalized. Which in this case is a very bad thing. The film presents a very grotesque picture of male power; not in the sense that everyone with a penis is Eeeevil, but there's still such pervasive, almost parodistic ugliness on the part of most of the men in the film (including Josey's father), that you almost refuse to believe it can be true. I'm not saying it isn't, and I'm not denying that conditions could be that bad and worse. But the usual response I have to such representations is to appeal to the film's veracity: it's based on facts, so things probably were really that bad. Here, the film is just insistent enough on its own fiction that it becomes easier to doubt what we're seeing. I don't doubt the film, but I can see why someone would.