SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! How much of who we are is what we choose to be? This question is explored in the thriller God’s Country. Directed by Julian Higgins and written by Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna, the film is based on the short story Winter Light by James Lee Burke. The film achieves tremendous observational strength thanks to a riveting performance by Thandiwe Newton, yet it fails to land the universal resonance it needs to truly be outstanding.
Newton plays Sandra, a professor at a local college who has just lost her ailing mother. Situated in a rugged stretch of terrain, Sandra leaves her A-frame home to bury her mother’s ashes in the snowy wilderness. Upon returning, Sandra notices a truck parked on the far end of her property. It belongs to Sam (Joris Jarsky) and Nathan (Jefferson White), two local boys who like to go hunting now and again. Sandra leaves a note on their truck reminding them that they have parked on private property and permission is needed.
This isn’t received well, so Sandra confronts the two men directly. This isn’t received well either. A tit for tat ensues between Sandra and the two men who insist on disregarding her space. Local acting sheriff Gus (Jeremy Bobb) is of no use, explaining that issues like these are best handled without the assistance of the authorities. This is illustrated in a tense scene on a Christmas tree farm where Sandra, the one and only female person of color, mitigates local history to de-escalate a stand-off between her, one of her assailants, and the police that should be on her side.
“…tit for tat ensues between Sandra and the two men who insist on disregarding her space.”
God’s Country also follows Sandra’s struggles within her department at work to bring another person of color into consideration as a staff member. Her superior, Arthur (Kai Lennox), is a white male who believes in doing the right thing yet falls short of being a champion. Sandra’s struggle to offer visibility to women and people of color at work mirrors her personal battle.
Higgins and Ogbonna have a lot that they want to cover, and it’s worthy of discussion, but something is missing. There is a visceral universality to God’s Country explored that is topical and engaging. But, the message would benefit from a few more emotionally resonant moments to send us on the journey of either the antagonists or the protagonist.
To be clear, Thandiwe Newton’s performance is breathtaking. She conveys emotion down to the syllable without a single word. This is her film. The script service her talents as a grieving daughter in a heightened emotional state, but there is only so much she can do. As far as production goes, there is some beautiful work in regards to Andrew Wheeler’s cinematography and sound mixers Brad Bryan and Chris Trueman, who seem to capture every crunch of snow and howl of the wind.
God’s Country is a solid piece of work that makes you feel that the filmmakers have a bright future. Even if the narrative doesn’t quite go all the way, the themes are vital. Plus, Newton knocks it out of the park as the lead.
God’s Country screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
"…Newton's performance is breathtaking."