God’s Country, 2022.
Co-written and Directed by Julian Higgins.
Starring Thandiwe Newton, Jeremy Bobb, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, and Tanaya Beatty.
When a grieving college professor confronts two hunters she catches trespassing on her property, she’s drawn into an escalating battle of wills with catastrophic consequences.
Julian Higgins’ blazing adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light” recasts the tale’s older, white protagonist as a middle-aged black woman to stirring effect, as terrifically played by a rarely-better Thandiwe Newton in this challenging, airy neo-western.
At the beginning of this biblically-relevant seven-day story, Sandra (Newton) is mourning the recent death of her mother, and after noticing a red truck parked on her property, surmises that two hunters are using her grounds as a shortcut to hunt. Frustrated at the hunters’ lack of respect when confronting them, she takes matters into her own hands, reactively escalating the situation in ways that put her own life at risk.
Yet if the opening passages suggest that God’s Country is a straight-forward A-to-Z revenge thriller – a slice of Taylor Sheridan-lite, even – it’s worth noting that this is really not that film at all. Sandra’s spat with the hunters is just one piece of a more expansive and emotionally dense puzzle.
As one of the few non-white faces in the nondescript Mountain State expanse in which she resides, Sandra is a sure outsider. As a female college professor of colour, she also finds herself clashing with academia’s predominantly white, male power structures which keep women – and especially Black or minority women – from fully realising their own agency.
The usual suspects in the old boys’ club pay superficial lip service to inclusion initiatives at the college all while wringing their hands about the “danger” of “quotas.” Sandra meanwhile tries to maintain her composure for the sake of her spot on the university’s tenure track.
Having grown up in New Orleans, Sandra bristles up against the laid-back ways of small-town rural American life, where even the interim sheriff tells her to sort the land dispute with the hunters herself – albeit partially because the local police force has such limited resources. Nevertheless, even the line-toeing sheriff shows his subtle biases when he calls the disobedient hunters “gentlemen.”
Marry to this the unique emotional tumult of losing a parent – informed by aspects of Sandra’s past in New Orleans which land with bruising, narrative-reframing impact later – and she’s a powder keg ready to blow. The frustration bubbles within this “difficult” woman, giving way to fleetingly explosive acts of anger, whether justified or not, emblematic of a repressed people pushing back against their aggressors.
Sandra desperately wants to know why those who anger her do what they do, and though fissures of understanding break through her and her targets’ mutually tough exteriors, it’s not terribly surprising that, eventually, it ends up coming back to humanity’s first trait – violence.
Filmmaker Higgins stated pre-release that God’s Country is very much concerned with his own anger following the 2016 American election, and that much is certainly felt, even if the diaspora of themes is sometimes a little too scattered to fully stick.
Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna touch extremely broadly on loaded subjects like police brutality before moving on to more focal touchstones as toxic masculinity and entrenched racism. For a film to tackle both the unequal power dynamics rife throughout the academic world and the origins of violence is a heady, unwieldy mix, and though they don’t always cohere, Higgins can’t be faulted much for his ambition.
This is a largely quiet, restrained feat of filmmaking, with sparse dialogue and slow-burn storytelling weaving a chilly western vibe. The methodical pace may be ultimately lethargic to its detriment, but the atmosphere and surging intensity of Newton’s performance at least help the severity slowly thaw.
Cinematographer Andrew Wheeler’s gorgeous location photography meanwhile adds masses of character to the story, enough that it should make him an in-demand talent for works of this natural grandeur. Composer DeAndre James Allen-Toole’s ominous pulsing score adds complimentary mood during select passages, in one scene seemingly offering a dread-infused homage to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unforgettable droning Sicario score.
Yet Higgins’ not-so-secret weapon is indisputably Newton, who gives a rich, agonising performance as a grief-stricken woman who learns the wince-inducing cost of kicking down doors within a broken system. Whether quietly observing and simply living or exploding into a righteously furious tirade, Newton commands the screen in every which moment, aiding the picture through some of its more arguably languorous sections.
In addition to the sometimes sluggish pacing, there are also certainly moments where Higgins’ filmmaking trades a little too eagerly in on-the-nose metaphor; the recurring glimpse of a mother deer in particular is a touch too cute for its own good. Some may meanwhile lose patience with Sandra’s continually self-destructive behaviours, but this is merely instructive of the patience that she herself has lost with the ugly world around her.
Julian Higgins’ exceptionally confident and well-made feature debut may test the viewer’s endurance with its glacial sprawl, but Thandiwe Newton’s fierce performance keeps God’s Country grounded in most of the right ways.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.