‘God’s Country’ Review: Thandiwe Newton Anchors a Thriller of Escalating Disputes in Big Sky Country

The star is on fine form as a newcomer at odds with rural Montana locals in freshman director Julian Higgins' involving drama-cum-thriller.

God's Country
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Race, class and cultural divides are probed with intriguing understatement in “God’s Country.” Julian Higgins’ first feature can be taken as a drama with thriller elements or a low-key thriller with atypical dramatic nuance, working either way as a quietly effective balance between genre, social issue and character study elements. Based on a James Lee Burke story, it stars Thandiwe Newton as a college professor whose fish-out-of-water status in rural Montana is exacerbated when she runs afoul of trespassing working-class hunters. Too modest in scope and impact to be a major breakout title, this Sundance premiere should nonetheless attract streaming outlets and other home-format providers.

The screenplay by Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna (who co-wrote 2017’s impressive, underseen crime tale “Lowlife”) is a “western” in that it’s on the laconic side verbally, at least most of the time. Thus it’s a while before we realize that the loved one Sandra Guidry (Newton) buries at the start is her long-ailing mother, with whom she’d moved from New Orleans for a tenure-track job teaching public speaking. Indeed, it takes some time before this protagonist speaks at all: Living alone now with her dog in a secluded house, she has little need for words outside the classroom. Still, her sense of grieving privacy violated is palpable when she returns from a morning run to find an unoccupied pickup parked on her property, a stone’s throw from her porch.

The note she leaves on its windshield is ignored, and it’s back the next day, when she gets to meet the scruffy, somewhat intimidating Cody brothers, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White from “Yellowstone”). They aren’t very apologetic about using her property as a deer-hunting gateway sans permission, nor is she very tolerant of their uninvited presence. Once they return a third day, she tows their car; in retaliation, an arrow is shot into her front door.

At this point, the police get involved — that is, Deputy Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), who is in fact the only cop in a 300-mile jurisdiction. He seems to belittle Sandra’s complaint, telling her, “Around here, contacting authorities only makes this worse.” What he doesn’t mention is that his office (and a colleague currently on forced leave) has in fact recently had a serious dispute with the same ornery, hard-luck local community she’s now at odds with, making him a problematic ally at best.

“God’s Country” keeps upsetting expectations of a predictable revenge thriller, even as it seems to embrace some of those tropes. While born-and-raised residents like the Codys — who live and work in far humbler circumstances — may resent Sandra as a privileged outsider, she herself feels excluded. Not least at work, where as an African-American woman she’s isolated amidst an all-white, mostly male faculty. Her neighbor (Kai Lennox) is also the chair of her university department, and when push comes to shove, probably won’t defend her concerns either on campus or off.

These and other sources of tension lead her into some ill-advised decisions. The script is savvy enough to provide scenes (notably one with Nathan in a church) in which we realize the people she might well view as hostile, disrespectful rednecks have their own triggering causes for resentment and rash action, too. A late revelation of Sandra’s pre-academic profession might come off over-contrived in a less thoughtful film. But Newton pulls it off in another tête-à-tête scene (this time with Gus), and her speech then adds a further layer to a story that makes potent sense of red-tinted dream or flashback imagery scattered throughout.

As ever, Newton is a compelling and emotionally communicative presence, easily sustaining viewer interest in this restrained, oft-silent role. Supporting roles are expertly cast and played, their actors providing sufficient texture that we can do without much in the way of character backstories. The filmmakers’ approach keeps us in edgy anticipation of a more conventionally violent melodrama than the one we get — at least until a fadeout one might argue disappoints by finally, if reluctantly, delivering just that.

Until then, at least, “God’s Country” (the title of which hints at another running theme of faith and doubt) is admirable for avoiding caricature within conflict, and granting dramatic personae the depth to hesitate before giving in to their angriest first impulses. While some visual aspects have a nondescript feel that won’t lose anything on the small screen, the film does stay aesthetically true to its low-key, melancholic tenor by presenting a Montana countryside less spectacular than stark, color-muted and overcast. DeAndre James Allen-Toole’s original score is likewise distinguished by judicious restraint where from-the-get-go “ominousness” might normally be applied.

‘God’s Country’ Review: Thandiwe Newton Anchors a Thriller of Escalating Disputes in Big Sky Country

Reviewed at Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas, San Francisco, Jan. 21, 2022. In Sundance Film Festival (Premieres). Running time: 102 MIN.

  • Production: A Film Arcade, Cold Iron Pictures presentation of a Cold Iron Pictures production. (World sales: ICM, Los Angeles.) Producers: Miranda Bailey, Halee Bernard, Julian Higgins, Amanda Marshall. Executive producers: Jason Beck, Anthony Ciardelli.
  • Crew: Director: Julian Higgins. Screenplay: Higgins, Shaye Ogbonna, based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke. Camera: Andrew Wheeler. Editor: Justin Laforge. Music: DeAndre James Allen-Toole.
  • With: Thandiwe Newton, Jeremy Bobb, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, Tanaya Beatty.