Charlize Theron plays Josey, a lower-middle-class woman in Minnesota's glacially gorgeous but economically blighted northern realms. Fresh out of a crap marriage, she can only find work as a salon hair-washer until her older friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), clues her in on openings at the local mines.
Labor in the mines is gross, filthy and backbreaking. The idea of Josey engaging in it intimidates her miner dad (Richard Jenkins) and makes her mom (Sissy Spacek) leery. Still, the pay is good, and allows her to at last properly support her son, Sammy (Thomas Curtis).
But the male workers at the mine freak and retaliate against the unwelcome female in their midst, hurling assorted threats and petty abuses that escalate to attempted rape. So Josey enlists the help of a lawyer (Woody Harrelson), to file a class-action suit against the mining company in turn revealing some dirty secrets about almost everyone involved.
The cherub-cute Theron vacillates between looking too glam for the part and disconcertingly like a prettily distressed chipmunk. Though she still throws herself into the job heart first, Michael Seitzman's script subjects her character to a slight case of oversainting. Accused by the miners of being a bitch-slut of epic proportions, Josey is presented by the filmmakers as an erotic/romantic neuter. Do they think we'd be less inclined to respect the poor, hardworking girl if she got laid?
Better are Caro's use of atmosphere and her skill at creating seemingly casual moments of acutely observed human interplay between Josey and the women at the mine, and between Glory's disabled husband (Sean Bean) and Sammy. Most thankfully, the portrayal of physical sexual violence is the diametric opposite of the rape-as-money-shot technique used in the loathsome The Accused.
It's a film of creative fits and starts, one that depends on its audience's willingness to forgive and forget its multiple wee gaffes. Luckily for Caro, all those small human details have an aggregate effect in terms of our good will. As hokey and unrealistically optimistic as Josey's victories may play out, we buy them, because the director has made us want to.