Sundance 2022 Premiere-
On a surface level, Director Julian Higgins’ “God’s Country” might give the impression that it is to be a cat and mouse thriller. By saying it is far from it and much more than that, is to pay this fantastic film the highest of compliments.
Thandiwe Newton has reclaimed her proper name. “Thandiwe” is the correct spelling but, as she explained, it was misspelled in one of her first films, 1991’s “Flirting” and she just rolled with it. In recent interviews, the actress has spoken on her happiness for the industry’s move toward more positive representation of ethnic minority groups and is “most grateful for, in our business right now, being in the company of others who truly see me.” She is taking back her name and with that declaration comes one of her strongest performances yet.
“God’s Country” finds Newton as Sandra, a college professor in an unnamed red state in the Western part of the country. The film finds her preparing for winter break and grieving the recent loss of her mother.
Director Higgins sets his methodical and somber tone straight away. Sandra lives out of town, beneath the mountains under an open sky. Her house is beautiful. Rustic yet modern. Perhaps too modern, as winter winds now blow an empty cold through emptier house. Her mother’s spirit now only a memory in pictures and the empty hospital bed where she died.
Sandra has her dog to keep her company and takes long runs through the beautiful country. At this point in her life, to be alone with her thoughts is no good. Sandra runs every day, constantly in motion. Any outside intrusion would be a personal contravention to her “let me be” demeanor.
After a morning run, Sandra finds a red pickup truck in her driveway. She assumes selfish hunters and leaves a polite note on their vehicle to please refrain from parking in her property.
The next day, the truck returns. She softly confronts the owners, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White) Cody. They fail to apologize and are a bit hostile. When they return yet again, Sandra has their pickup towed away. Later that day, a lone arrow is shot into her front door.
After getting the local cop involved, he proves to be no help and begins to victim blame. “Interim Sheriff” Gus Wolf (an excellent Jeremy Bobb) does more harm than good, as he and his superior have serious beef with The Cody’s and their dangerous companions.
Where the film goes from here dodges every single expectation one would have going into this film. The screenplay (by Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna) is constantly surprising its audience.
Their film speaks to many issues today, the strongest being exclusion. Perhaps the Cody’s lack of respect for Sandra is because she is another person of some privilege who lives on the sacred land. Perhaps they dislike her for her skin color or the fact that she is a woman. Most likely, it is all these reasons.
Sandra’s exclusion continues into her work environment. University Chair Arthur Gates (Kai Lennox) is hostile to her pushback on no people of color (and few women) reaching their promised tenures. The bad thing is that Gates is also her neighbor, his house a mile or so away from hers. Even worse is his closeness to the Cody brothers.
Where the script takes these situations and what the film does with its characters is inspired. There is a beautiful moment mid-film where Sandra runs into Gus Wolf at a university holiday party. He approaches her to apologize for his behavior. As they speak, Gus says that he recognizes something in her that is more than just a college professor. His acute perception and unexpected kindness allow Sandra to be open about her past. Her backstory becomes another expertly crafted layer to her already deeply informed character.
Another scene later in the film could be the film’s most profound. Sandra meets Nathan Cody during a church service. In the film’s biggest deviation from the norm, the two characters sit in a pew and talk. The moment is edgy at first but calm settles in as the two speak like human beings to one another for the first, and perhaps only, time.
When Sandra poses a question to the Cody’s, “Why are you like this?”, it also becomes a question for her. Sandra’s increasing hardness is being shaped by the aggression towards her. The college flies a false flag of inclusion and Arthur Gates could care less. The police can do nothing about The Cody brothers, and they exploit their position. Her mother is gone. She is alone. Time for being complacent has passed.
Newton is tremendous as Sandra. Her performance is a force of bottled emotions daring to be unleashed. Sandra has a self-empowerment that no one seems to be aware of, but they soon will be. The actress has never had this perfect a role. Newton uses the silence to her advantage, conveying a lot with body movement and her deep gaze.
The Montana locations are not overused by cinematographer Andrew Wheeler. He shoots them gracefully to show the aesthetically serene surroundings that Sandra cannot release herself to.
Director Higgins has created a fascinating film; a character-driven drama that confronts some real issues in our country.
Like its metaphorical final shot, “God’s Country” delivers a power that stays with you.
Written by Julian Higgins & Shaye Ogbonna
Directed by Julian Higgins
Starring Thandiwe Newton, Jefferson White, Joris Jarsky, Jeremy Bobb
Not Yet Rated, 104 Minutes, Cold Iron Pictures