God’s Country (2022) Film Review B+

Thandiwe Newton gives an unforgettable performance as Sandra, a schoolteacher who lives on the edge of a small town in Montana. One morning, she finds an unknown pickup truck on her property. And the owners don’t give a damn about her property rights.

Adapted from the short story Winter’s Light” by James Lee Burke, director Julian Higgins and his co-screenwriter Shayne Ogbonna extensively modify the narrative by changing the protagonist’s sex from male to female and extending the story so that we get a more definitive but possibly, less satisfying ending. He also gives Sandra a complex backstory that involves her recently deceased mother and her mother’s horrific treatment in New Orleans during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina. Her mother was a devout Christian, which seems to have resulted in some tension between them. These additions seemed too contrived and literal as if we needed a double meaning from the film’s title. One of the great things about the original story was its clean storytelling, and some of this has been lost a little in translation. Sandra, it also transpires, is a former cop who made a drastic change in both her career and place of residence after seeing the treatment of her fellow African Americans during the Katrina debacle.

What Higgins does deliver, though, is an atmosphere of suspense and a feeling of unease. A feeling that Sandra’s fate is predetermined. Together with his cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and composer DeAndre James Allen-Toole, he gives Montana’s crystal-clear wilderness an ominous feeling whether it is during Sandra jogs in the early morning with her adorable collie (her only friend) or when the two of them are snuggling up together at night as the wind howls outside.

As an educated Black woman living alone in the Montana wilderness, Sandra is not only dangerously isolated but, paradoxically, also a sitting duck for unwanted attention. She gets attention from Gus and Nathan, the two brothers who own the truck. They are hunters, gun lovers, and trespassers, and they don’t believe in the law. In other words, they stand for everything that Sandra hates. However, it is to the credit of Higgins’s direction and the two actors who play them (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) that we also get to see these guys’ pain. Poor and uneducated, with no futures to speak of, they throw their weight around because that’s all they’ve got.

But the movie belongs to Newton, who gives the best performance of her career here. It’s a highly physical performance with only small stretches of dialogue when she interacts with the brothers, the deputy sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), her superior at work (Kai Lennox), and a young Native American woman who works in her department (Tanaya Beatty). And as the suspense builds inexorably toward the end, we are entirely in her spell as she takes us to the film’s inevitable climax.


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