A solitary woman’s grief lures us into God’s Country, Julian Higgins’ slow-burn drama. Crisp, steady shots of snow-powdered mountainous terrain sustain us. And a brash, violent feud traps us, making it impossible to look away from this often exhilarating, if occasionally overcooked, film.
Based on mystery writer James Lee Burke’s short story, “Winter Light,” God’s Country follows university professor Sandra Guidry (an arresting Thandiwe Newton) navigating the rocky, unpredictable landscape of mourning. Death haunts the film’s opening sequences, as a solemn Sandra oversees her mother’s cremation and later buries the ashes. Upon returning home from the makeshift funeral, she spots an unfamiliar red pick-up truck in her driveway. Annoyed, she leaves a note for the trespassers: This is private property, and they need to find another parking spot. The next day, she sees the truck again and finds her crumpled note buried in the snow.
The Bottom Line
A tense drama that shines in its quieter moments.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres) Cast: Thandiwe Newton, Jeremy Bobb, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, Tanaya Beatty Director: Julian Higgins Screenwriters: Shaye Ogbonna, Julian Higgins
1 hour 42 minutes
So begins a quiet and vicious week-long feud between Sandra and these strangers. As in Burke’s short story, the conflict is a war of attrition, with each party’s move escalating the stakes of the dispute. On day 2, Sandra confronts the two men, Nathan (a riveting Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Yellowstone’s Jefferson White), who feign ignorance about her note. They came to hunt, and cutting through her property offers the easiest route to the forest. Sandra, polite and firm, urges them to find another way.
After Nathan and Samuel shoot an arrow into Sandra’s door in retaliation for her towing their car, she calls the police — or, in this case, Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), the acting local sheriff. He sympathetically listens to her case before suggesting that she handle the dispute with the men herself. The particular politics of this rural town, composed of white and Indigenous people — many of whom hate the police — make the sheriff as much of an outsider as Sandra. But the professor insists they act, so the duo drive to confront the hunters, initiating the next level of their war.
Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna’s screenplay amplifies the thematic undercurrents of “Winter Lights” by making its central character a New Orleans-born middle-aged Black woman. While the short story’s narrative wrestled with its retired college professor protagonist’s masculinity, the film ambitiously injects racial, gender and geographical tensions into the mix, to uneven, but nonetheless exciting effect.
Sandra sees the hunters’ provocations as an extension of a familiar transgression — the world’s disrespect for Black women — and has no problem taking matters into her own hands. Newton renders Sandra’s rage delicately, intimately. A few overacted moments don’t dampen the performance’s general restraint as Sandra relishes one-upping her opponents and grieves her mother, with whom she had a complicated relationship.
It’s disappointing, then, when the screenplay doesn’t always reflect that same level of trust or subtlety. Higgins and Ogbonna stuff the narrative with a well-intentioned but unwieldy backstory that registers as misaligned with the direction of Sandra’s character: She used to be a police officer in New Orleans but left the city after Hurricane Katrina, which made her realize the ease with which the city could abandon its Black residents and the futility of her role in the force. She moved north with her mother, a woman of the church who abhorred cold weather, to take this tenure-track position at a university staffed with mostly white people. Their already fractured relationship barely survived the move.
The purpose, I suppose, is to make Sandra more three-dimensional. But the backstory, revealed all at once, coupled with her sporadically shown fight to diversify her department (much to the chagrin of her colleague Arthur, played by Kai Lennox), makes Sandra seem more like a symbol than a person.
When the writing moves away from these blunter tendencies and settles into peeling back layers of Sandra’s personality and relationship to this town, God’s Country is much more effective. Sandra decides to follow the two men after another day of hunting, learning more about their lives and community. An initially poignant conversation about God with Nathan, whose mother Sandra learns is an organist like hers, abruptly turns sour — a twist that’s revealing of the role race has in guiding their interactions. And Sandra’s burgeoning maternal relationship with her student, Gretchen (Tanaya Beatty), along with a distressing interaction with Samuel, highlight the undercurrent of gender violence coursing through the story more forcefully than any one speech.
Quieter moments mesh beautifully with God’s Country’s lush score by DeAndre James Allen-Toole and cinematography by DP Andrew Wheeler (Small Crimes). The film makes excellent use of Montana’s vast landscape (though the actual setting remains unspecified), which viewers absorb through establishing shots as well as Sandra’s regular runs through the woods, accompanied by her dog. The snowy peaks and canyons overwhelm the senses, their beauty adding a sinister layer to this dangerous game.
As the film moves to the seventh day, a creeping sense of catastrophe settles. Sandra becomes increasingly incensed with the hunters and feels more alone in her fight against them. Although astute viewers may easily predict God’s Country’s final moments, the journey there is still a wild and satisfying one.