It’s a well-worn cliché to call a film a “slow burn,” but clichés got that way for a reason, and films like God’s Country prove why. Directed by Julian Higgins (and co-written by Shaye Ogbonna), Thandiwe Newton stars as Sandra, a college professor in a rural Montana town forced to confront a number of evils threatening her livelihood, her home and even her very wellbeing. The film’s script must’ve been a thin one, not because the story is (it’s quite the opposite), but because the dialog is as sparse as the landscape. Instead, Higgins builds a world of tension and rich background stories by doing exactly what we expected most of movies: he shows us. Set over the holidays during the dead of winter, the timing gives the film both a harsh coldness, with expanses of empty white stretching out on all sides of Sandra’s home, and a strange sense of connection as her escalating experiences are broken up by the likes of faculty Christmas parties.
Structured around a series of consecutive days noted in on-screen cards, the film begins with a prologue that sees Sandra mourning the loss of her mother. The first day, then, is the first day she’s facing the world without any ties to her past or family to support her. She’s entirely on her own, and soon the world will test all the strength and fortitude she can muster. Sandra didn’t necessarily choose a life in the sparse rural community she’s found herself in, a conservative enclave where hunting is the preferred past time and barns boast murals of the American flag with “God Bless Our Troops” emblazoned across them. It’s where she and her mother landed after Hurricane Katrina, when the government and their extended community abandoned them and their neighbors, forcing them (and so many others) relocate for higher ground. The fish-out-of-water element in God’s Country has a decidedly political bent, then; it’s both implied and expressed that Sandra does not exactly share her new neighbor’s perspective on the world.
Writers Higgins and Ogbonna give Sandra plenty to contend with. At school, she’s part of a selection committee to recommend candidates for a new role, and though she advocates for inclusion in the selection process, the committee declines to include anyone non-white in their recommendations. She’s a sort of mentor to a young female teaching assistant (Tanaya Beatty) who eventually confides in her that a colleague is sexually harassing her, information that only adds fuel to the fire of rage burning within Sandra. And finally, there’s the men trespassing on her land, parking their beat-up old red pick-up truck and traipsing through the snow to access hunting grounds beyond Sandra’s house. Despite involving the town sheriff (two officers to cover 300 square miles of land), Sandra quickly understands that it’s going to be an uphill battle to protect her land and home.
At one point, Higgins sets his camera on a glass pot on the stove, eggs in boiling, bubbling water. It’s a bit on the nose but it works to reinforce the tension he’s building throughout this taut balancing act of a film. Sandra convinces the sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) to join her to try to talk with the trespassers directly, and their confrontation is one of the film’s most gripping moments, the first hint we get that both these men are not to be messed with and that Sandra is built of stronger stuff than we might have assumed. Newton is gripping as Sandra, navigating the many realities this woman pushed to her breaking point is facing with a sense of ease and ferocity that combine to something impressive. She’s matched on screen by Joris Jarsky as Nathan and Jefferson White as Samuel, the menacing hunters who bear down on Sandra with all their vicious leering and threatening looming. When the sheriff asks if the men threatened her, Sandra admits they haven’t directly, but that they’ve made her feel to be, and any woman who’s encountered a man who thinks he has the upper hand knows exactly what she means.
The problem with most films that earn a “slow burn” label is that that is all they ever are, existing on low from start to finish and hoping the audience finds enough to appreciate in their quietude. Higgins succeeds (to a great degree), then, because just as the film proceeds at its low-grade heat for the first two acts, it more than delivers when that fire finally explodes into something not even the stoic and controlled Sandra can keep contained. It’s a thrilling final act (and final scene), one that feels both justified and surprising in its finality, and one that makes the mounting tension that precedes it entirely worth it.
God’s Country is now playing in theaters.
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