In a flashback, Josey arrives at the home of her parents. Her father, Hank (the superb Richard Jenkins), instead of considering his daughter’s side of the story, automatically assumes the bruises on Josey’s face resulted in her husband finding out that she cheated on him. There are also judgmental looks at a church service aimed at Josey because of the gossip that she is promiscuous, the double sexual standard being in full force here. At a Catholic Holy Communion reception, (the belief in the Christian attitude of good will to others contrasts with just the opposite behavior in this place), women comment about how Josie was always beautiful, as if that is the most important female attribute, and one which creates envy among other women who may excel more in other areas, but are not admired for those strengths. So, they gossip how Josey is nothing but trouble for her parents, as Josey’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek) pretends not to overhear. At the bar, Hank talks to another man who says marriage problems are ironed out by going “out to the shed,” which is where you hit kids in the past to discipline them. He admits that his wife left him several times, and that’s how they worked out the “kinks” in the relationship. This short scene shows how these men see violence as an intrinsic part of a marriage. It’s like a battleground for them.
Josey gets a job at a hair salon, and meets an old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) there. They become reacquainted, and the dialogue between them is revealing. Josey shows her surprise when she learns that Glory drives a truck at the mine. She has been programmed to think a woman would only do secretary work at a place populated by men. When Glory jokingly asks if Josey left her husband because she found out that he was wearing ladies underwear, Josey says isn’t “wife beating” reason enough? It’s as if violence toward women is accepted in a marriage, but the non-threatening activity of cross-dressing is the real perversion. Glory informs Josey that there are openings at the mine, and the pay there is much better than that of a hairdresser. Josey wants to be independent and the fact that Glory performs a job that was traditionally assumed to be only for men inspires Josey to apply.
Josey’s primary sexual harasser is Bobby Sharp, (Jeremy Renner). Bobby is the boy who grabbed young Josey’s behind in her flashback. He requests that she be his assistant in the “powder room,” a particularly filthy place that has the euphemistic name for a woman’s bathroom, where the female employees, despite being in “manly” jobs, are told they must do what women do, which is clean up. There are some men who do not approve of their co-workers actions, including Ricky, (Corey Stoll), who intervenes when the abuse gets really oppressive. But, he is sarcastically called a “Boy Scout” by the men, which shows that even the enlightened males working at the mine are intimidated into falling into line with the anti-female agenda. (Later in a bar, Josey dances with Ricky and asks him if he is a “nice” man, which seems to be a type of person that she has found to be rare in her life). Glory tells Josey she just has to take what the men have to “dish out” if she wants to keep her job. And, Josey, who now has a place of her own and can take her kids out for a nice meal, does appreciate the independence that a decent wage can bring her. She admits that for the first time she actually feels like she is “living.”
At the local bar where the miners unwind, Josey and the female workers enjoy an evening together with the male employees also present. This scene shows the complexity of male-female interactions. Glory’s husband, Kyle, is at the bar with a friend, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), an attorney, and ex- hockey star (showing him to be a man of brains and brawn) who has returned from New York following his divorce. He reveals his hurt ego, and sexist bias, when he complains to Kyle that the judge ordered his wife to pay him alimony. Why has he returned to this town? Possibly to get a testosterone transfusion because he feels less manly since his ex-spouse makes more money than he does? One of the inebriated miners, angered by Kyle and Glory giving Josey a place to stay, accuses Kyle of helping Josey just so he can have a “three-way.” For this man, the sexual component is the only way he understands how men relate to women. Bill, trying to be the peacemaker, gets between the other two men, but his evolved, reasoning side becomes undermined in the heat of the moment, and he winds up punching the drunk worker out, reverting to the macho side of his personality. Glory wants to set Bill up with Josey, but he is romantically gun-shy at the moment, after being wounded by the break up of his marriage, and unsure of his role as a man at the moment. One of the women miners, Sherry (Michelle Monaghan, in one of her early roles), a bit under the influence, comes onto the more senior Bill. He awkwardly says that he has “underwear” older than she is. Sherry, being a young, attractive woman, has been brought up thinking that her sexuality is the only weapon in her feminine arsenal, and to have it rejected is very disarming. She lashes out, and questions Bill’s heterosexuality. So she, too, reduces the male-female dynamic to one of sexuality.
At work, Bobby lies to Josey about a conveyor belt being clogged so he can get her way up at the elevated end of the mechanism, isolated. The height is symbolic of the dangerous precipice on which she finds herself by trying to shake up the masculine system. After he orders the operator to start up the machinery, the deafening sound would drown out a person’s yells. Bobby presses himself against Josey and says that they should kiss and make up. She struggles and he lets her go, but he seems to not understand why she is so resistant to him, given their time in high school together. There is a cut back to the courtroom, and we see that Bill became Josey’s lawyer. Pavich, the Human Resources worker, is on the stand and says that Josey was just paranoid and there was no evidence that would make him take action when she reported harassment to him. Pavich says that a man will always try to cross the line when it comes to sexual abuse, and it’s the job of the woman to smack him back over that line. His testimony accepts the notion that “boys will be boys,” and absolves males from responsibility for their actions, as if they have no control over their drives. He places the burden on the women to defend themselves, even though men have rigged the rules so that they have the social and economic power to force their will on the female population.
The final straw for Josey again occurs in the “powder room” when Bobby literally knocks her down, jumps on her, and grabs her by the crotch. He says to her that she likes “that,” which hints at his wanting to believe that she is sexually available. She breaks away and later confronts Bobby in the cafeteria, now calling him out in public, mirroring what happened to her at the hockey game. But, she is in the right, and refuses to keep the harassment silent, as the other women have. One of the men says that Bobby was with him all day, and even Ricky, although appalled, won’t stand up for Josey, which shows how the status quo hinders the men who oppose sexual abuse from speaking up. Big Betty allows Josey to take her car to go home, and Josey announces that she quits.
Josey asks Bill to sue the mining company. He tells her at first to forget about it. The defense will use the “nuts and sluts” defense, which means they discredit a woman’s claims by either depicting her as deranged, imagining wrong deeds, or else saying that the woman was seductive and encouraged the sexually aggressive male activity. Bill demonstrates the attitude of the times by saying she is beautiful, and Josey knows that he means she can get a man to take care of her. But, Josey’s been through that, and she tells Bill now she wants to take care of herself and her children. Later, after sharing a drink with Kyle, Bill notices all of the animal heads mounted on the walls of the bar. On the one hand, it points to the male desire to validate their manliness by gathering trophies, which extends to the sexual arena. But, on the other hand, Bill realizes that animals are safer in a herd than if they try to go it alone. He tells Josey that he will represent her if they can enlist other women and pursue a class action sexual harassment suit, which has never been done before.
In order to negate the legitimacy of Josey’s claims, Bobby told Conlin that Josey has always been promiscuous, even having sexual relations with a high school teacher. Conlin brings the teacher, Paul Latavansky, (Brad William Henke) into the courtroom. On the stand, Josey now shares what were her private memories. The teacher, the one previously seen with the lewd look on his face, caught young Josey and Bobby drinking alcohol and kissing, and brought them in for detention. After dismissing Bobby, the teacher raped Josey in the classroom. Josey saw that Bobby could see that the teacher violently pressed her, crying, against the windowed classroom door, but the young boy ran away from the scene. Sammy is the teacher’s son, and Josey kept it a secret. She was like most young people who are sexually assaulted, who wonder why such a horrible thing happened to them. Were they at fault? They are made to feel ashamed and don’t want to reveal the attack, afraid they will be blamed, which is especially how girls have been made to feel. And, they feel powerless to blame an adult for a wrongdoing. After finally hearing the secret that Josey has been keeping about the assault, Hank goes after Latavansky, and is restrained and removed from the courtroom. There are no witnesses to verify Josey’s version of what happened, so Conlin argues that the testimony is self-serving.
Sammy doesn’t want to believe that he is the child of a rapist, and not the son of a soldier who died in the war, which is what Josey had told him to shield him from the truth. While hanging out with Glory’s husband, Kyle, Sammy says his mother is just a whore who is lying so she can win her case. Kyle says that Sammy can accept the truth because his mother could have put him up for adoption, but didn’t, and took care of him, was proud of him, and always went to his hockey games. Sammy goes home and Josey is honest with him about not initially wanting him after the assault. But once she felt him move inside of her, she knew that he belonged to her, not her rapist. She assures him that none of the ugliness that was part of his conception attached itself to Sammy.
It is difficult to accept harsh truths when it is easier lie to oneself and cover up terrible acts. Which is what Bobby did. He couldn’t stand the guilt of not helping Josey when she was being raped, so he rewrote history to put the blame on Josey, and labeled her a slut. When Bill gets Bobby on the stand he uses the rough sport of hockey as a metaphor to break down Bobby’s defenses by saying a real man must bleed, suffer, in order to show his courage. By impugning his masculinity if he doesn’t show courage and tell the truth, Bill gets Bobby to finally admit that Josey was raped. He didn’t report the attack because, he says sobbing, “what was I supposed to do?” Bill sums up the problem and the difficulty of the solution presented by the movie. He says, “What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those with none? Well, for starters, you stand up.” In the back of the courtroom, Glory is there, unable to speak, but making a rattling noise. She has prepared a statement which Kyle reads, and which announces that she’s “not dead yet,” and that she stands with Josie. One by one, many in the courtroom stand up, including some of the women workers, Josey’s parents, and some male miners. Josey has her class action suit.
The ending has Bill giving Sammy some hockey pointers, and we hear that Josey has won the case. The last shot is of Josey showing Sammy how to drive. She is now the one in control of the road ahead of her. A message informs us that in the real case, there was a modest financial settlement, but sexual harassment policy was established to protect the current women workers, and those that followed.
It is important to see where progressive change sprang from and the courageous sacrifice made by many to achieve justice. But this case ended in 1998, after a fourteen year struggle. And, as we see in the headlines daily, sexual abuse of women has continued for many years after the end of this case, carried out by unscrupulous men in the very industry that produced this film, and at all levels of government. We must continue to, as Bill says in the film, “stand up” to make a difference.
The next film is Norma Rae.