Directed by: Julian Higgins
Premise: A female college professor (Thandiwe Newton) living alone in her rural home confronts two men trespassing on her property. Meanwhile, she deals with academic politics as her department searches for a new faculty member.
What Works: The western has enjoyed a quiet resurgence in the past decade with films such as Hell or High Water and The Harder They Fall and the television show Yellowstone. The new westerns are a bit different from the genre’s heyday; they are morally ambiguous and acknowledge some of the social and racial politics that westerns of the 1950s largely ignored. God’s Country fits into that trend. It reiterates some of the familiar aspects of the western such as the protagonist defending their home against marauding strangers and a former lawman forced to pick up the gun in self-defense. But God’s Country includes a diverse cast and it uses racial and gender politics to enhance the meaning of the conflicts. The story centers on Sandra, a college professor and former police officer who comes into an escalating conflict with local hunters. Sandra is a black woman and the hunters are white men but the film doesn’t use shortcuts to depict racism and sexism. One of the exceptional qualities of God’s Country is the way it makes sexism and racism visible; we get a sense of how Sandra feels intimidated without her aggressors ever stating a threat directly. The film possesses a vivid atmosphere of violence. This story is a slow burn thriller about a woman pushing back against intimidation and how her resistance escalates the threat. This film is a showcase for actress Thandiwe Newton. As Sandra, Newton gives an intense and complicated performance; she’s grieving the loss of her mother as well as other traumas and that emotional baggage is evident throughout Newton’s performance. God’s Country is also beautifully shot. Cinematographer Andrew Wheeler captures the harshness of the landscape and the visuals and the sound convey the crisp cold of the Montana winter.
What Doesn’t: God’s Country is the kind of film that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. That’s appropriate for a story that is in many ways morally ambiguous. Sandra witnesses things that are wrong, whether it is the hunters trespassing through her property or ethical wrongdoing in her academic department, but there is no a clear remedy. The ambiguity is in Sandra’s search for the appropriate response. God’s Country is antithetical to a lot of mainstream Hollywood films which avoid this kind of complexity. That’s not a fault of the movie but viewers should realize that God’s Country does not serve up the kind of revenge movie thrills that Hollywood generally provides.
Bottom Line: God’s Country is a complex neo-western with a fresh perspective on this genre and its stories. It’s simultaneously tense and thoughtful and features an impressive lead performance by Thandiwe Newton.
Episode: #918 (September 18, 2022)