Thandiwe Newton's Performance Anchors the Tense, Thought-Provoking Rural Drama 'God's Country' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Thandiwe Newton's Performance Anchors the Tense, Thought-Provoking Rural Drama 'God's Country'


Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Newton gives an award-worthy performance in a tense, ambitious drama from North Country native Higgins. - COURTESY OF IFC FILMS
  • Courtesy Of IFC Films
  • Newton gives an award-worthy performance in a tense, ambitious drama from North Country native Higgins.

New Hampshire native Julian Higgins is a filmmaker who's going places. The shooting of his first feature, God's Country, was interrupted by the pandemic, but after he finished it in 2021, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

God's Country is loosely based on James Lee Burke's 1992 story "Winter Light," which Higgins had already adapted into a short film of the same name. The new film is an adaptation with significant differences: The protagonist, a retired white male professor in the story, is now a middle-aged Black female professor (Thandiwe Newton).

In press notes, Higgins and cowriter Shaye Ogbonna say they wrote the film partly in response to the 2016 presidential election. On Friday, October 7, Higgins returns to his hometown of Hanover, N.H., to discuss God's Country following a 7 p.m. screening at the Spaulding Auditorium of the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The film can also be bought or rented on demand.

The deal

Sandra Guidry (Newton) is warm and friendly to her students at a small Montana college. Outside the classroom, however, she keeps to herself and quietly grieves the recent death of her mother, who lived with her in an isolated A-frame at the mouth of a canyon.

One day, two hunters in a red pickup park in Sandra's driveway and head into the woods. She leaves a note on their windshield asking them to stay off her property. Soon she finds a dead bird in the snow, her bloody note beside it.

Step by step, the conflict escalates. The hunters (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) take it amiss when Sandra reports their trespassing to the acting sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), who warns her she's disobeying an unspoken rural code. Who's being hurt here, after all? No one — yet.

Will you like it?

Normally when I write reviews, I have no trouble finding similar films to put in the "If you like this, try..." section. God's Country is an exception. Oh, sure, the movie has precedents: It's a modern western noir like Wind River; a think piece about middle America like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and a revenge thriller centered on a culture clash like Straw Dogs or Death Wish or even I Spit on Your Grave. Yet, while God's Country evokes all of those films and more, it feels wrong to draw a direct comparison with any of them, because Newton's character changes the equation.

First of all, it's original just to tell this story from a Black woman's perspective. The cowriters don't make racial difference the overt focus of Sandra's standoff with the hunters — ironically, that issue comes up explicitly only in her struggle with the head of her department (Kai Lennox), who presents himself as an enlightened liberal. Rather, the focus is on the divide between urban expat and rural natives, between individual choice and collective custom. And it's no simple division: Almost everyone is a complex character who bears some responsibility for the evolving conflict, including Sandra herself.

Newton has always had a remote, slightly icy vibe; in her role as an android on "Westworld," she embodied fine-tuned menace, killing with the sweetest of smiles. That veiled intensity serves her well in God's Country. We rarely know precisely what Sandra's thinking, but we feel her determination, and that keeps us invested even as the script reveals her motivations in frustratingly small doses.

When we finally learn Sandra's backstory, it feels a bit more programmatic than organic, as do some of the key scenes in which she finally opens up to another person. In hitching her story to collective historical traumas, the cowriters sometimes strain for a reach that exceeds their grasp. But Newton makes Sandra so vivid, in all of her moral ambiguities, that we follow her breathlessly to the bloody end of the tale.

The stark majesty of Montana is practically a character in the film, just as it was in Burke's story. Andrew Wheeler's cinematography does full justice to the landscape, making us feel Sandra's powerful ties to her adopted home.

Higgins' visual storytelling is austere and attention-grabbing at once. A stunning parallel structures the film: Both its first shot and its last shot are long, slow push-ins that bring us closer and closer to a central image. In the opening shot, that focus is a classroom slideshow of archival images that places the whole story in the context of America's problematic past. In the last shot ... well, I won't spoil it, but this is an ending no one is likely to forget.

That's true of God's Country as a whole. While the script droops when it tries to spell out its themes, the movie shows enough ambition and originality to keep viewers hooked. This is a film you'll want to see in a group and discuss afterward, teasing out painful questions that have no easy answers.

If you like this, try...

Hell or High Water (2016; Netflix): Neo-Western noirs like this one dissect the flaws of angry white men who feel dispossessed, yet they always seem to tell the story from those men's points of view — unlike God's Country.

The Power of the Dog (2021; Netflix): Jane Campion's literary adaptation is yet another angry-white-guy neo-Western. Like God's Country, though, it's also a study of profound and willful solitude.

"Winter Light" Burke has posted the original story on his website. Give it a read for a fascinating exercise in comparison and contrast.

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