2022, R, 103 min. Directed by Julian Higgins. Starring Thandiwe Newton, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Jeremy Bobb, Kai Lennox.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 16, 2022
It's the dark and menacing, still and foreboding look of God's Country that will grab you first. Cinematographer Andrew Wheeler (Cheap Thrills) casts his lens on the snow-covered corners of Montana, but it's not the sparkling iridescence of fresh powder. It's the tiring, muddy slog of snow that has melted and refrozen, the kind of snow that trips and traps you, that wears you down, without regard for how tired you are, or your struggles. That's the background for the bleak and socially-loaded debut feature from director John Higgins, a remorseless and mournful rewriting of survival thriller cliches as a social observation.
In adapting James Lee Burke's short story, "Winter Light," Higgins and cowriter Shaye Ogbonna (The Chi, Lowlife) have taken the barest of its bones and grown fresh meat. The original story focused on a retired male academic who clashes with hunters who intrude on his serene, self-imposed, backwoods exile. There's less peace in the life of Sandra (Newton): still a lecturer, but she moved to rural Montana for a job in academia. There's still the clash with hunters, but unlike Roger in the short she's coming in with an added level of outsiderdom, an educated Black woman in the middle of Hicksville.
But the script doesn't fall back on lazy tropes, or simplistic characterizations. When two hunters – the wiry, weaselly, aggressive Samuel (White, Yellowstone) and older, more haunted Nathan (Jarsky) – roll on her property in their red pickup, she tells them to leave. They want to go hunt, they can, but they can't use her land as a shortcut. The next morning she finds and arrow in her door.
In a lesser film, this would quickly accelerate into a revenge fantasy, but Higgins and Ogbonna instead find an ebb and flow. For every unnerving standoff, such as a memorable moment in a Christmas tree farm where chainsaws become menacing, there are calmer ones of reconciliation, such as a wounded exchange between Sandra and Nathan, where they find common ground in their mothers and their faith.
But the real subtlety is in Newton's depiction of Sandra, and the perspective given on her situation by the local deputy (Bobb) who sees both the unfairness of her situation and her unnerving ability to provoke. The hunters, and the redneck culture that created them, are clearly in the racist, macho wrong, but Sandra seemingly can't resist the temptation to poke the bear. However, yet again, this isn't just about some big city type coming in an talking down to the hicks. The layers of Sandra are steadily pulled away to reveal a lifetime of injustices, allowing the audience to feel boundless empathy for her as a Black woman in constant struggle (her university colleagues being more polite but no more truly welcoming than the mountain folks) while still internally begging her to stop making the situation worse. And always there's the loaded question on everyone's lips: why are you here? Whether asked with compassion or a tone of bigotry, it's a cloud hanging over her very existence.
There's a bleakness in the humanity underlying God's Country – the name clearly a brutal pun, as there's no divine eye watching over this snow-covered nowhere. Turning Burke's 12-page story into a feature requires adding a resolution, rather than the pointedly ambiguous ending of the original. It's not the ending itself that lets the story down a little – due in no small part to being given emotional logic by an extraordinary performance by Newton as Sandra, having channeled every injustice into disillusionment. Instead, it's the path there, which falls into the tropes that the first two acts so resolutely avoids. But those stumbles cannot deflate a final shot, in which the work of Newton, Higgins, Ogbonna, and Wheeler perfectly fuse into one of the year's most haunting moments.