Thandiwe Newton, as she now spells her first name, finally gets a role she can really sink her teeth into with God’s Country, a disturbing, unusually class-and-race-conscious modern Western that paints a pretty despairing view of human relations in red state America. Methodically paced and dominated by negative emotions all around, director/co-writer Julian Higgins takes his own sweet time exploring the troubling, unfriendly mindsets on both sides of the fence. Fences, in fact, would have been a very apt title for this quietly simmering study of people who bring little but ill-will to the table.
Higgins must have a thing about academics and trespassing; his 2004 debut feature Mending Wall dealt with conflicts in a small New England town, while his 2015 short Winter Light (apologies to Ingmar Bergman) centered on a battle between a college professor and two hunters intruding on his property. In his new film, which is set in a mountainous, sparsely populated Western state, no dialogue is heard for the first eight minutes, which effectively foreshadows the clenched resentments and ill-will that come to dominate the drama. If every character in the cast were to be asked the question, “Can’t we all just get along?, “ the answer from both sides would be a resounding, sinister “No!”
Bidding her students and colleagues farewell just before winter break, Sandra (Newton) tells them, “Sometimes it feels like things never change. But I promise you they do. They have to.” Generally out West, locals tend to be friendly, if sometimes also a bit guarded, but when two young men drive onto Sandra’s property and agreeably ask if they can park nearby so they can hike further up into the mountains, she bluntly refuses them permission.
The next day, the locals come back, park their truck and head up into the woods without saying a word. When they return, they find Sandra has moved their vehicle somewhere else. By this time we’re a half-hour into the movie and about all we’ve seen are micro-aggressions that don’t speak well of anyone’s attitudes or openness to being friendly good neighbors.
Over the next day or two things escalate further, as Sandra tells the town’s acting sheriff that she has “definitely been made to feel threatened.” In a small community like this where everyone knows each other and two officers have to cover an area of 300 square miles, there’s normally a “go-along-to-get-along” mindset that tacitly gives people a wide berth and a way to make amends for small issues. But Sandra has in no way adopted such an attitude. The good-old-boys respond to Sandra’s unfriendliness by putting an arrow in her front door and you begin to wonder if some Straw Dogs-like behavior is in store.
By this time, you begin to realize that God’s Country is an odd film that’s providing very little idea of where it’s going. Is it about class mistrust? At one point, she actually goes to the home of one of the perceived rednecks and bluntly asks, “Why are you like this?” Or is it more to do with Sandra’s depression? There are a couple of eventually revealed recent events in her life that cast a light on her behavior, but God’s Country eventually emerges as a piece that means to hold its central figure’s attitudes and actions to account, a bracing approach for this kind of character piece to adopt.
Even though Sandra’s belligerent behavior grows increasingly disturbing, the forthright attitude the film ultimately takes toward her issues emerges as quite refreshing. Neither the writer-director nor the leading actor begs for any sympathy, and Newton goes truer and deeper into her character than she may ever have had the opportunity to do before. Sandra’s aggressiveness and lack of interest in being nice are quite unusual characteristics in a leading role like this and it leaves you with much to consider about her character in terms of what drove her to leave New Orleans, to develop such an uncooperative attitude and to want to cut herself off to such an extent.
When she goes to the front door of one of her unfriendly adversaries and bluntly asks, “Why are you like this?,” she just as well should be asking the same question of herself. As smart as she is, she’ll probably ask it one day and come up with a well-considered answer.
Small films like this rarely spawn sequels, but this is one where a follow-up would be quite welcome.