God’s Country ★★★
Availability: Widely showing in theaters; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
What’s God Got To Do With It?
There’s a repeated story line in recent films: a determined, usually young, woman takes matters into her own hands when threatened by a) misogynistic lowlife, b) monster, c) racist colleague, d) her own past, or e) a combination of the above. To underscore the point, consider 6 of our last 8 reviews: “Barbarian,” “Resurrection,” “Nope,” “Bad Luck Banging,” “Kimi,” “Everything, Everywhere” — and now “God’s Country.” Refreshingly, college professor Cassandra, in Julian Higgins’ just released Western drama, is one of the more complex and interesting of these protagonists.
“Sandra” confronts two hunters who have trespassed on her isolated property in a remote canyon in Montana. One of the men seems mildly at odds with her, the other classically threatening. She holds her ground. She also attempts to hold her ground in English Department meetings, where she, a black woman, makes the case for more diversity in hiring in the otherwise white, older, mostly male department.
Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), above, can be steely competent at what might seem like
men’s work. Here she's chopping wood outside her isolated house in a remote canyon.
Thandiwe Newton captures the complexity of her character. Sandra can be steely competent at what might seem like men’s work—she expertly tows the hunters’ red pickup truck from her driveway (only later do we understand how she acquired these skills). And she’s emotionally gripped by the memories of her youth and of her family from New Orleans. We learn her mother has just died and that both of them were traumatized by Katrina and its exposure of racist responses to black New Orleanians. In an effort to escape from or repress that trauma, they have transported themselves to this totally new, even alien, environment.
Julian Higgins and his co-writer Shaye Ogbonna place the self-righteous Cassandra in the midst of a social milieu she can’t possibly know, let alone appreciate.
Higgins and his co-writer Shaye Ogbonna (executive story writer for the TV series “The Chi”) place the self-righteous Cassandra in the midst of a social milieu she can’t possibly know, let alone appreciate. This culture clash, with its echoes in the partisan divides and culture wars of contemporary America, produces the tension and conflict that drive the film. Sandra’s reactions to the hunters, her colleagues, her students, and other townspeople, are not necessarily predictable. Sandra is not simply a victim of her own making. Nor are the “others” necessarily who they seem; they are, with perhaps one exception, even when smiling on the surface, ultimately inhospitable to her and her values. Almost no one is pure victim or pure perpetrator.
The Sheriff knows the limitations of law enforcement in this sparsely populated rural expanse.
The disjuncture between the norms of this western outpost and its struggling lower classes (the hunters work at a Dollar Store and a Christmas tree lot) and what educated, reasonably well-off Sandra brings to any confrontation make her unable to empathize and often unable to react effectively, to those who try to listen to her and those she tries to help. The Sheriff (Jeremy Bobb)—make that Acting Sheriff—is a version of Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” He knows the limitations of law enforcement in this sparsely populated rural expanse, and he tries to educate Sandra in the ways of Montanans. A version of Frances McDormand’s Mildred, she isn’t buying. By the end of their stories, both Sandra and Mildred experience the limits of revenge. Missing is the dark comedy of Martin McDonagh’s 2017 award-winner, replaced here with suspense.
Jeremy Bobb, above, as the Acting Sheriff trying to teach Sandra the ways of Montanans,
with cinematographer Andrew Wheeler's hazy window as their backdrop.
The complex story calls for settings as diverse as the icy, white western Rockies and New Orleans’ watery Katrina. Cinematographer Andrew Wheeler (he has won awards for short films) is up to the task. His superb camerawork includes many partially out-of-focus scenes and Fassbinder-like shots through windows (metaphors for clouded understanding), sweeping panoramas of the magnificent, forbidding landscape, what many would call “God’s Country,” and creeping, gushing waters of Louisiana.
There’s more God in the script. Sandra comes from a deeply religious family, an upbringing she shares with one of the hunters, Nathan (Joris Jarsky). Their encounter in a small church offers them an opportunity—but that’s all—to find common ground. There are bad guys too, giving the film its “thriller” categorization, leading to its enigmatic, tragic ending, and making clear that God may have better things to do than tend to the Montana countryside.
Director: Julian Higgins
Starring: Thandiwe Newton, Joris Jarsky, Jeremy Bobb, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox
Runtime: 102 minutes
Country: United States
Other Awards: To date, one win: Traverse City Founders Prize Special Award.