Set in 1984 Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her ice-cold hometown in Northern Minnesota after fleeing from an abusive husband. In order to care for her two young kids she needs a job--and for most of the townsfolk including her distant dad (Richard Jenkins) that means working in the local iron mines. Problem is not too many women work there and those who do are subjected to continual harassment by their male coworkers. Josey lands a job anyway and starts to get her fair share of sexual innuendos. One day her former high-school sweetheart also a mine employee takes it way too far with her. Although met with strong resistance of course a lawsuit ensues that results in a groundbreaking decision for women’s rights in the workplace. Ah what an Oscar can do for a career. It wasn't that long ago Theron wouldn’t even have been considered for such a dramatic role. But with deserved recognition she gets to strut her stuff in North Country. She's no Monster but she's no supermodel either--and while it's impossible to erase her beauty its glare has been reduced. A second-consecutive Oscar win? Maybe not but a nomination wouldn't be out of the place. Co-star Frances McDormand might also be in line for a nod of her own. She plays Glory a woman who gets Josey the job and encourages her to fight the good fight something that seems visceral for McDormand. Woody Harrelson is also solid as Josey's attorney though his Midwest-stoner drawl gets in the way of the northern accent he's supposed to be selling. New Zealand director Niki Caro mightily impressed us with Whale Rider a poignant mixture of grief and vigor and with North Country she continues to impress. As more an observer than anything else Caro lets the true story tell itself--of what happened in this small town with its frigid denizens and sexist behavior. And the film is definitely a period piece á la Norma Rae in that it's from a specific period albeit a recent one and pertains to a specific region. But it's kind of slow going. There’s a lot of weeping and dramatic speeches. Still Caro makes up for it by including several Bob Dylan songs who rarely grants the use of his songs in films. Perhaps he felt a certain a kinship to this film since it takes place in the desolate cold Northern Minnesota where he comes from--and so resents.
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.