GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) is a slow-burn thriller that grows stronger the longer it goes on, using subtlety to ratchet up the tension the way other lesser-made movies use violence to do the same. As such, it’s a refreshing and resounding drama that packs a punch from start to finish.
What GOD’S COUNTRY has to say, that racial disparities and violence against women continue to be unchanged is disturbing, mostly because it is hard to argue that the movie is wrong.
Figuratively, the film plays out like a western of old, only the protagonist is a woman of color, alone on the prairie, dealing with bad men with guns, pushed to the limit, until she has to stoop to their level, like a classic gunfighter of yesteryear, and beat the villains at their own game. But GOD’S COUNTRY isn’t a “western,” nor an action movie, but a drama about a college professor dealing with both subtle racism and in-your-face violence.
It’s a masterful story and movie well worth the price of a movie ticket.
GOD’S COUNTRY takes place in beautiful western Montana, “God’s country,” where college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) has recently moved from New Orleans, and with the passing of her mother, she is grieving. She lives alone with her dog in a farmhouse with stunning mountains and wilderness all around her. One morning after her morning jog, she finds a red pickup truck parked in her driveway. Her employer and dean at the college Arthur (Kai Lennox) tells her not to worry about it, that it probably just belongs to some hunters, and they never bother anyone.
But Sandra takes offense to their parking on her property, and when the truck is parked there again, she leaves a note asking for them not to park on her property. But they ignore her request, even after she speaks to them in person, and when they shoot an arrow into her front door, she calls the police. Acting sheriff Wolf (Jeremy Bobb) tries to tell Sandra that things are different in Montana than in New Orleans, and that most of the time, these issues are solved not by calling the police, but by the folks themselves. But Sandra says she feels threatened, and so against his better judgment Wolf agrees to talk to the two men. Sandra insists on going with him, which doesn’t make the situation any easier.
They meet the first man Nathan (Joris Jarsky) at his job, and he takes offense at Sandra being there with Wolf, and he worries that Wolf’s presence there in the store will cost him his job, which Wolf assures him it will not. Nathan reluctantly agrees not to park in Sandra’s driveway anymore. But when they visit the second man, Samuel (Jefferson White), the more unpredictable of the two, at his place of work, cutting down pine trees, they find themselves in the forest suddenly surrounded by hostile men wielding chainsaws, in one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, men who refuse to listen to Wolf, because, as we find out, the former sheriff is on a leave of absence for shooting and killing one of the men’s brothers, and so they do not trust the police at all. It’s Sandra who steps up and offers her sympathy and condolences to the men and gets them to agree that the man who shot the brother is not there with them, and so she convinces them to let her, and Wolf walk away, no harm, no foul. It’s here where Wolf recognizes that Sandra wasn’t a college professor back in New Orleans.
And later over a conversation at a party hosted by Arthur, Wolf learns that his suspicions are correct, that Sandra was a cop back in New Orleans. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, Wolf asks Sandra why she left the force, and he guesses that she shot someone in the line of duty, to which she replies, that’s the worst thing you can think of? When she goes on to tell him that the reason she left was because of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, how the authorities and the system failed her people, and her mother specifically, it’s a powerhouse moment, where the audience feels as dumbfounded and as foolish as Wolf, who offers a weak “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” which causes Sandra to walk away.
The tension rises when Sandra begins to follow Nathan and Samuel to learn more about them, and they view this as an escalation, and the acts of violence against her grow more serious. Meanwhile, Sandra grows more frustrated at her job when Arthur fails to include a person of color for an open professorship. Things build to an explosive climax, and as I said, this one gets better as it goes along.
There’s a lot to like about GOD’S COUNTRY. Director Julian Higgins continually inserts brief snippets of close-ups of items inside Sandra’s home, soaking in pouring rain, giving the audience a sense of foreboding that something awful is yet to come. The entire film is beautifully shot in western Montana, and this natural scenery is at odds with the humans who inhabit it. The film’s title GOD’S COUNTRY has multiple meanings here. The literal, the setting, but it also refers to the recurrent theme of useless faith. Sandra’s mother put her faith in God yet was left to fend for herself in the hurricane in New Orleans. It also speaks to what God’s country ultimately is in the United States, a flawed unfair system that hides behind the notion of God while it does whatever the heck it wants.
Thandiwe Newton, who stars in the TV series WESTWORLD (2016-2022), plays Sandra as a sad, cautious, and ultimately fed-up woman who is sick and tired of being bullied by the folks around her. She comes off to the casual viewer as being somewhat of a pain in the backside, and early on in the movie the audience tends to agree more with her levelheaded boss Arthur, and the two hunters don’t at first seem all that unreasonable. But Sandra asked them not to park in her driveway, and they refused. That in and of itself needed to change, and when it doesn’t, the audience’s view on Sandra changes. It doesn’t matter that she might seem annoying, those guys should one, be off her property, and two, should leave her alone, and when they don’t, that’s when the problems get worse.
Jeremy Bobb as acting-sheriff Wolf is convincing as the laid-back country police officer who became a cop because his high school coach was also a cop, and he figured it was a worthwhile profession.
Kai Lennox is excellent as dean Arthur, the man who seems fair minded at first, but the more we learn about him, the more we realize he’s not as progressive as he says he is. The scene where Sandra has had enough and tells him to f*ck off, is one where the audience feels the same exact way.
Jefferson White is sufficiently slimy as the unhinged hunter Samuel, but Joris Jansky is even better as his buddy Nathan. In another of the film’s many powerful sequences, the scene where Sandra follows Nathan into a church is a perfect microcosm for the story this movie tells. When Nathan sees Sandra, he tells her she has to leave, but when she sees his mother playing the organ, she tells him that her mother also used to play the organ at church, and she also tells him that her mother has just recently died. The two converse quietly in the back of the church, on their mothers, and on faith, and they seem to gain an understanding of each other and bond, but moments later, he tells her in a harsh and threatening manner, that she has to leave the church now!
That’s what happens in God’s country.
The screenplay by director Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna is a real strength. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them. It uses subtlety to great effect. When Arthur’s young secretary confides in Sandra and tells her that Arthur sexually assaulted her, when she gives the details, it at first sounds so harmless— in other words, it’s not a blatant rape or grope, but it is a massage, and the film gets you to realize, of course this isn’t harmless!
The film’s ending, in which Sandra realizes there is only one way to finally stop these men, which comes after they have inflicted great harm to her, hearkens back to the classic westerns of old. In a way, this seems disappointing, that this is the best we have as an answer. But that is what the film is ultimately saying, that as much as we want change, nothing is changing.
It’s a somber message, but it all works.
GOD’S COUNTRY is well-made drama that speaks volumes as to what life is really like in this nation some people call God’s country.
I give it three stars.
Four stars- Excellent
Three stars- Very Good
Two stars- Fair
One star- Poor
Zero Stars- Awful