It is admittedly hard to keep up with all the festival films, and some are bound to fly under the radar if they were missed during their initial festival release. Unfortunately for “God’s Country,” it is dumped in the middle of September for public consumption, a month often known for being a sort of February dumpster prior to awards season contenders. This is a huge disservice for such a carefully crafted and thoughtful film, one that also sports a Thandiwe Newton best. “God’s Country” is the kind of thought provoking, unrelenting examination of vast world around us and how we occupy spaces we often are welcomed in that goes unwatched and unnoticed. They often get lost in the shuffle, and seldom garner box office success and are only remembered by the diligent few who seek these kinds of films out. “God’s Country” deserves far more eyes and discussion than it will unfortunately get. Powered by outstanding performances and a chilling patience, the film unfolds into escalating violence that goes far beyond the vast snow covered mountain ranges of forgotten country side and into the hearts and minds of our every day civility.
Based on the short story “Winter’s Light” by James Lee Burke, “God’s Country” is written and directed by newcomer Julian Higgins, who a co-written screenplay by Shaye Ogbonna. The film tells the story of a college professor who is inadvertently drawn into an escalating battle as two hunters insist on using her property as a jumping off point for the vast wilderness. Still reeling from the loss of her mother, Sandra unravels in her isolation in the vast Montana wilderness, and every battle feels like life or death as she tries to keep her life together amid escalating confrontations. Typically, I have a lot more to tell you in the synopsis, but “God’s Country” is a strangely simple story packed with complex and nuanced themes, and takes its time to unpack all of them. The film works best when you’re only given the bare bones narrative, because the layers that are peeled back in this consistently escalating story deliver when we aren’t entirely sure where everything is going.
What makes “God’s Country” so effective is its patience and stellar, career best performance from Thandiwe Newton. Higgins is resolute in being unflinching in his approach here, refusing to let the “get to the point” culture of the streaming generation influence the slow, scenic escalating story unfold organically. We don’t really make films like this anymore. Everything is designed to be instant, and the minute something wants to take its time we reject it for the next thing that is sure to follow. I am even willing to admit that I’m a victim of this experience, discarding shows after a few episodes and faulting them for wanting to take their time. “God’s Country” is a reminder to how effective patience in story telling can be, with our titular character not even uttering a single word until roughly 8 minutes into the film. That is a bold choice, but Higgins is in complete control of his story and where he wants it to go, and is perfectly content in not even letting his audience know why his main character in the vast wilderness in the first place.
Thandiwe Newton has always been a knockout on screen, one who never phones any performance in and is often the best part of a bad or good film. So it is high praise to say that Newton is at her best here, delivering a subtle, quiet, but deeply complicated performance. The best of a great actress is a lot, and “God’s Country” puts everything she can do on full display with as little words as possible. Most of her performance is portrayed through her isolation, grief, and desire to fight battles that have followed her from the Big Easy to the unfathomable wilderness of forgotten America. Newton proves she doesn’t need words to convey vast amounts of emotion, often times being asked to deliver an entire character in a single look, stare, or reaction. Newton is up to the challenge here, and if the film wasn’t so buried in the middle of September with little to no fan fare, she might actually be a contender during awards season. She won’t unfortunately, but she damn well should be.
There is so much boiling beneath the surface in “God’s Country,” and Newton brings out the fire of woman who has been fighting for her existence all her life. The small cast lets this themes and concepts shine through, and as things get more and more tense we are asked to look beyond the territorial “get off my lawn” framework and into the abyss of manifest destiny and culturally fostered racism. These themes are both overt and subtle at the same time, never feeling like Higgins is trying to assault his audience with them but being very clear about what is driving the tension that consistently escalates the film. Newton’s Sandra is constantly on the defensive, both from being a woman of color in the predominantly white wilderness and someone who hasn’t quite learned to live without their mother. She is wrought with systemic ceilings and extreme grief, and her antagonizers on exacerbate these feelings of survival through violence. Even as she often seeks to deescalate situations, “God’s Country” demonstrates that sometimes, no amount of civility can make up for the darkness and violence of human nature.
“God’s Country” will most likely be a criminally underrated film, one that falls victim to its understated release and overlooked intensity underneath its slow burn unfolding. It’s unfortunate, because the film has so much to say, and does so with very little expository nonsense and lets the characters and scenery speak for itself. There is still plenty of wild west country in America, and “God’s Country” unpacks these ideas with patient precision and powerful storytelling. And yes, it helps that the performances are some of the best we’ve seen from some truly great performers. Even when the film decides to introduce conflicts that seem unrelated to the main story, “God’s Country” always has a reason behind every shot. These detours only solidify Sandra and who she is, as well as strengthen her own discovery when she asks others, “Why are you the way you are?” It is a question she asks of her would be tormentors, but one she only begins to discover in herself.
Whether you want “God’s Country” to be an American commentary, a slow burn thriller, or a character study, it is nuanced and complex enough to be all of these things and all of these thing equally. It may not be accessible to everyone, but what it seeks to do it executes brilliantly, and it just may be the most understated and underrated film of the year.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.
“God’s Country” is currently playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.