With God’s Country, a disturbing, extremely class-and-race-conscious modern Western that presents a very despondent vision of human connections in red-state America, Thandiwe Newton, as she now spells her first name, finally gets a character she can truly sink her teeth into.
Julian Higgins, director/co-writer, explores the unsettling, antagonistic mindsets on both sides of the fence in a methodically structured film driven by bad sentiments all around. Fences, in fact, would have been an excellent title for this slow-burning examination of people who bring nothing but an ill will to the table.
Higgins must have a thing for academics and trespassers, as his 2004 debut feature Mending Wall dealt with conflicts in a small New England town, and his 2015 short Winter Light (with apologies to Ingmar Bergman) focused on a battle between a college professor and two hunters intruding on his property.
No dialogue is heard for the opening eight minutes of his new picture, which is set in a mountainous, scarcely inhabited Western state, cleverly foreshadowing the knotted resentments and ill-will that come to dominate the action. If every character in the cast was asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” the answer would be a resounding, sinister “No!” from both sides.
“Sometimes it feels like things never change,” Sandra (Newton) tells her pupils and coworkers as she bids them farewell right before winter break. But I can assure you that they do. They’ve had to.” Locals in the West are generally cordial if a little cautious at times, but when two young guys drive onto Sandra’s land and agreeably ask if they can park nearby so they can climb farther up into the mountains, she flatly refuses.
The villagers return the next day, park their truck, and walk up into the woods without saying anything. When they return, Sandra has moved their vehicle to a new location. We’re about a half-hour into the film, and all we’ve seen so far are microaggressions that don’t speak highly of anyone’s attitude or willingness to be nice, good neighbors.
Sandra tells the town’s acting sheriff that she has “certainly been made to feel threatened” throughout the course of the next day or two. In a tiny town like this, where everyone knows everyone else and two officers have to cover a 300-square-mile area, there’s usually a “get along to get along” mentality that implicitly gives individuals a wide berth and a means to make up for minor infractions.
Sandra, on the other hand, has taken no such stance. When the good-old-boys poke an arrow in Sandra’s front door in response to her unfriendliness, you start to wonder if some Straw Dogs-style behavior is in store.
By this point, you’ve realized that God’s Country is a strange picture with little indication of where it’s going. Is it a matter of mistrust between classes? She even goes to the home of one of the supposed rednecks and asks, simply, “Why are you like this?”
Is it more to do with Sandra’s sadness than anything else? There are a few later revealed recent incidents in her life that shed light on her behavior, but God’s Country ultimately emerges as a piece that seeks to hold its major figure’s thoughts and actions accountable, which is a bold stance for this type of character piece to take.
Even if Sandra’s aggressive conduct becomes increasingly alarming, the film’s direct approach to her problems finally comes off as refreshing. Newton delves truer and deeper into her role than she may have ever had the opportunity to do before, and neither the writer-director nor the leading actor begs for compassion.
Sandra’s hostility and lack of interest in being pleasant are unique in the main part like this, and it leaves you with a lot to think about in terms of what motivated her to leave New Orleans, have such a disagreeable attitude, and want to isolate herself to such a level.
She should be asking herself the same question when she goes to the front door of one of her unpleasant adversaries and frankly asks, “Why are you like this?” As brilliant as she is, she’ll undoubtedly ask it one day and provide a thoughtful response.
Small films rarely get sequels, but this is one where one would be nice.