Sundance Review: Julian Higgins’ ‘God’s Country’ is a showcase for a powder keg performance from Thandiwe Newton [Grade: B]
Ashes in the snow. That is what we see in the beginning of Julian Higgins’ slow-burn thriller, God’s Country, as Sandra Guidry (a dynamic Thandiwe Newton) buries her mother not far from her secluded home in the mountains of Montana. Sandra lives alone, only going into town to get previsions and to go to work, where she is a speech professor at the local college. Her mother’s death has taken a toll on her, she’s become quieter, more introspective since her passing. Many on the staff notice this but allow her the space to grieve and heal. In doing so, she continues her daily routines, chopping firewood, going for a run with her dog, grading papers. It isn’t till one day, looking outside her window, she sees a mysterious red truck pulled up on her property, and thus conflict arises.
The truck is owned by two men, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who are looking to go deer hunting around the area Sandra lives in. When she suggests other locations for them to go hunting, and kindly asks them to stop parking their car on her property, they dismiss her, which almost leads to a face-to-face confrontation. Over the next two days, the brothers defy Sandra’s wishes (out of spite) and continue to mark their territory on her land. Out of frustration, she breaks into their truck while they are in the woods and tows their car away from her house. Once the brothers see this, they retaliate with shooting an arrow right at her front door.
Fearful for her life, Sandra notifies the local sheriff, Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), who we quickly learn has zero time for these kinds of disputes and has no back up officers to assist him in town given that his former boss killed a member of Nathan and Samuel’s family. And when a meeting of the brothers, their other family members, Gus, and Sandra happens at the local Christmas tree emporium, tensions rise amongst all parties, with Sandra playing the mediator between the Gus and these angry men.
In a detailed, dynamite monologue delivered by Newton, we discover that Sandra was from New Orleans, and was a cop. She loved her job, but due the controversial, racially charged police shootings, and the lack of accountability within the system to those fellow officers for killing defenseless people, she gave it all up because she couldn’t live with herself if she continued to work for such a systemically rotten organization. When she tells this to Gus, he is rendered speechless, much like we are, and as she walks away, there is nothing but pain you feel for Sandra, because beyond losing faith in the job she loved, she lost faith in God, and by the time she returned to her mother, she lost her too because she developed dementia and was never the same again.
But as God’s Country plays out, we see that the quite life Sandra has looked for in her new environment is just a racially conflicted than when she was in New Orleans. People in town stare are her, like she is from another planet. Her colleagues at the university see her value to their department as a member to check off a quota, tell her that the job of being a professor is good enough when she inquiries about being considered for a leadership position in her field of study. Her friend and neighbor at the university (Kai Lennox), doesn’t even come to her aid when she expresses her concerns to them about what is going on both on campus and at home. Sandra is truly isolated, with no one to back her up, and thus the final third of the film, she is feed up with the systems set up around her to ignore and mistreat people like her who just want to be treated equally.
Luscious Montana landscapes are shot expertly by cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and a beautifully melancholy score by DeAndre James Allen-Toole blend perfectly with Higgins’s tantalizing direction. But it is Newton, who has been an excellent veteran actor for so many years throughout various projects, that gets to showcase a performance so calculated and precise, it’s hard to wonder why it took so long to get a role like this in the first place. Sandra struggles seem to effortlessly connect to Newton in present time, as the actress recently fought to restore the original spelling of her name and take agency back in her professional and personal life.
The only pause for concern in God’s Country is the ending, as the film concludes rather too quickly, not letting us linger like we’ve done so for most of the runtime. By taking a semi revenge, action movie angle, it goes down a road that is puzzling and unnecessary. But what saves it is what we are ultimately left with, which is a metaphorical rebirth, signaling a fresh start for two people as new paths are forged in the snow, one for Sandra, and the other for the actress bring her to life.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute