Photo: ‘God’s Country’
Shades of Influence
In Julian Higgins’s debut feature, ‘God’s Country’ we don’t hear his protagonist speak for the first several minutes. Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), a university professor in Western Montana, solemnly watches a casket slide into a crematorium. Later, she takes her pickaxe to the frozen topsoil to bury the ashes, where nothing but the sound of clinking metal whispers to the Montana sky.
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The shots are vast, wide, and empty. As barren as the plains they capture, and quiet as the wind that whistles through them. Higgins and his cinematographer Andrew Wheeler do much to make emptiness a dynamic force in the film, whether it’s in the sound mixing or cinematography. The cast of ‘God’s Country’ is overtaken by the looming harshness of their winter surroundings. You can feel the cold stripping every character down to his and her rawness. After all, you might think a film called ‘God’s Country’ has ideas of underscoring the ultimate realities to which we are all subject. Sometimes, it’s explicitly stated. Later in the film, Sandra says something like “when you look at the mountains, it feels like you’re looking back in time, back to the very beginning.” The characters of the film are subject to their landscape, one to which Sandra is new.
Despite nothing being said, the mood is palpable. We come to learn it was Sandra’s mother who had died. It’s hard not to think of ‘There Will Be Blood’, as no doubt Higgins was when crafting his own opening. Yet the comparison between these two films is cheap and unwarranted. In many ways, Higgins, despite a strong performance by Newton, tries to replicate the feel of a film of that caliber, but it comes off as a facsimile of a better film, not a companion to one.
After Sandra buries her mother, the film progresses by days — each one a chapter in the story. With each day, her feud with a pair of hunters, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White) escalate. When the pair park their truck on her property, Sandra leaves a note warning them not to trespass. The next day they return, denying having seen any note. When Sandra confronts them Nathan firmly explains that her property is the best hunting spot for miles, while Samuel simmers behind him. Both have the presence of men who don’t mess around. Nathan is the more social of the two while Samuel has an unhinged, wild card look. Unfortunately for them, Sandra isn’t messing around either. The next morning their bright truck is back, so she tows it herself. Then she finds an arrow in her front door.
Thus begins a violent game of chicken, one based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke. In this version, though, Sandra is a middle-aged Black woman, opening up the script to more dimensions than it knew what to do with. For a film steeped in silence and the austerity of the unsettled American West, Higgins crosses wires by wading too explicitly into the loudness of current sociopolitical issues. An adept director would have allowed her mere presence to carry the weight of her situation while maintaining the thematic importance of silence in the film. Higgins does make some silent gestures to Sandra’s fish-out-of-water position, like in one scene when she resolutely places an old photo of her hometown community church on her mantle. It’s well done, emotional, and speaks volumes. A scene like that alone could have carried the thematic weight without skewing the focus of the film. But instead, Higgins overplays the film’s involvement in social issues, muddying its overall voice and mood.
In one scene, Sandra is shown to be the only one of her colleagues to not support the new small town’s department hiring three white people adding to her isolated position as the only person of color. It leads Sandra to have a heated argument with her boss (Kai Lennox), Arthur, about inclusive hiring, despite earlier conversations in the film that demonstrate the department’s commitment to diversity. “It’s the whole big song and dance about the process, but it’s the same damn result,” says Sandra frustrated. Tensions boil over until her boss says what you fear he will say: “You’re here. We hired you, didn’t we?” The film teases a few social themes out, then ultimately abandons them for the original (and far more compelling) storyline of her escalating battle of wills with two hunters.
The main problem with ‘God’s Country’ is that it distracts itself from an otherwise straightforward story about grief, boundaries, and human will. All of ‘God’s Country’s strength lay in its atmosphere, and when it focuses on that, it really works. Unfortunately, it tries to marry the less important baggage of Sandra’s backstory with its religious overtones, but together they create dissonance, not harmony. Higgins is trying to make two different movies into one, and they prove mutually exclusive. Either one would’ve been good enough, but the social struggle embedded into the film detracts from the emotional weight of Sandra’s situation and ultimately her decisions. When it comes to God’s Country some things are best left unsaid, but in pursuit of profundity, Higgins says too much.
CAST AND CREW:
Dir: Julian Higgins
Writers: Julian Higgins, Shaye Ogbonna
Cast: Thandiwe Newton, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, Tanaya Beatty
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.