God's Country

Director: Julian Higgins
Screenplay: Julian Higgins & Shaye Ogbonna (based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke)
Stars: Thandiwe Newton (Sandra Guidry), Jeremy Bobb (Gus Wolf), Joris Jarsky (Nathan), Jefferson White (Samuel), Kai Lennox (Arthur), Tanaya Beatty (Gretchen)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2022
Country: U.S.
God’s Country
God’s Country

Very early on, you can sense exactly where Julian Higgins’s God’s Country is headed, so when it arrives at its shattering final moments, they come as no surprise. That would seem to be a weakness—making the film “predictable,” which is almost always a pejorative when discussing movies or literature—but here it seems to be the very point. The film works because we know early on where it is headed, which is what makes watching the progression to that point so painful and uncomfortable. One of the fundamental traits of movies is sensing what will happen and being unable to do anything about it; it is the essence of suspense, but here it is used in a more foreboding, dreadful kind of way that has real emotional weight. God’s Country is about cultural and interpersonal conflict, and its dour assessment is that it is inevitable.

Thandiwe Newton stars as Sandra Guidry, a college professor who has recently relocated to rural Montana to take a position teaching public speaking and to care for her dying mother. She is, in every sense, alone in the world, which is embodied physically in the visual isolation of her house in the snowy wilderness and personally in her being the only person of color and one of the only women in her department. Her chair, Arthur (Kai Lennox), who lives nearby, is seemingly kind toward her, but as the film unfolds, it is revealed that his sympathetic, tweedy exterior actually masks a deep reservoir of narcissism and privileged intractability.

The real conflict, though, stems from a dispute between Sandra and two local brothers, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who park their pickup truck on her property to go hunting in the woods behind her house. They assume that the seemingly meek woman who lives there will not confront them about their casually flagrant disregard for her property rights, but they soon learn that that is not the case. Rather, Sandra leaves a note asking them to not park on her property, and when that fails, confronts them in-person, dispelling any notion they might have had about her bending to their will. Rather, she asserts her rights and demands that they stop parking there, which sets off an escalating feud between them that later involves the beleaguered local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb).

The threat of violence lurks constantly, but in ways that are more complex and unsettling than you would find in a conventional vigilante drama (for which this film will likely be mistaken). What makes God’s Country so engaging and disquieting is the way it draws such strong connections between all manner of violence—physical, verbal, interpersonal, political, and academic. Despite being a first-time feature director, Julian Higgins displays the sure hand of an old pro in guiding the story, allowing the escalation and conflict to grow in ways that feel natural and unforced.

In adapting James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light” (which Higgins previously adapted as a short film in 2015), Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna transform the story by changing the protagonist from a retired white man to a woman of color in her forties. The shift in sex, race, and age allows them to engage additional social and cultural issues absent from the short story by both suggesting and directly implying that Sandra’s conflicts are partially born from the inherent outsider status conferred on her by her being a black woman. Nathan and Samuel never utter any racial epithets or threaten her sexually, but it is impossible to ignore the idea that they resent her all the more because of who she is. The racial aspect is brought even sharper into focus when Sandra confides in Gus Wolf, the sheriff, her backstory involving Hurricane Katrina. There is a tendency, of course, to view the film through simplistic blue state/red state lens, with Sandra standing as the superior, educated, articulate representative of civilized society and Nathan and Samuel as uneducated, rural, brute redneck-throwbacks to a less civilized era. And this is why Arthur’s presence is so important, as bridges that divide, representing the manner in which hideous attitudes can be draped in decorum and niceties.

And yet, as much as God’s Country is about conflict and our almost fatalistic collision course with each other, Higgins offers small glimpses of the possibility of connection. There is a beautiful and haunting scene in which Sandra follows the gruff, bearded Nathan to a church where he takes his aged mother each week to play the organ. The scene starts with sharply whispered conflict, but then slowly morphs into a surprisingly sustained moment of quiet connection as they discover shared commonalities involving their relationships with their mothers. In other words, Sandra and Nathan are able to see each other as fellow human beings with similar struggles. Newton’s performance as Sandra is powerful throughout, as she gives the character a steely resolve that is balanced by moments of clear vulnerability when she is alone. This scene allows her to be vulnerable in the presence of not just another, but the most unlikely of others, and Joris Jarsky’s take on Nathan is no less powerful in its shift from gruff antagonism to gentle understanding. It is all fleeting, though, as a sharp glare from Nathan’s (likely racist) mother snaps the moment, propelling them apart once again. It is not that connection is impossible, but rather than it is so fragile that the slightest of instigations can shatter it.

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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