Thandiwe Newton shines in tense Sundance drama – The Hollywood Reporter

The grief of a lonely woman leads us into God’s country, the slow-burning drama from Julian Higgins. Sharp, steady shots of snow-capped mountain terrain support us. And a brash, violent feud ensnares us, making it impossible to look away from this often exhilarating, if sometimes overcooked, film.

Based on mystery writer James Lee Burke’s short story, “Winter Light”, God’s country follows college professor Sandra Guidry (a striking Thandiwe Newton) navigating the rocky, unpredictable landscape of grief. Death haunts the film’s opening sequences, as a solemn Sandra oversees her mother’s cremation and later buries the ashes. On her way home from the makeshift funeral, she sees an unfamiliar red van in her driveway. Annoyed, she leaves a note for the intruders: this is private property, and they must find another parking space. The next day, she sees the truck again and finds her crumpled note buried in the snow.

God’s country

The essential

A tense drama that shines in its quieter moments.

Place: Sundance Film Festival (previews)
To throw: Thandiwe Newton, Jeremy Bobb, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, Tanaya Beatty
Director: Julian Higgins
Screenwriters: Shaye Ogbonna, Julian Higgins

1 hour 42 minutes

Then begins a week-long quiet and vicious feud between Sandra and these strangers. As in Burke’s short story, the conflict is a war of attrition, with each side’s movement raising the stakes of the dispute. On day 2, Sandra confronts the two men, Nathan (a fascinating Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Yellowstone‘s Jefferson White), who pretend to ignore his note. They came to hunt and cut through his property offering the easiest path to the forest. Sandra, polite and firm, urges them to find another way.

After Nathan and Samuel shoot an arrow in Sandra’s door in retaliation for her towing their car, she calls the police – or, in this case, Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), the acting local sheriff. He listens kindly to her case before suggesting that she manage the dispute with the men herself. The peculiar politics of this rural town, made up of whites and Native Americans – many of whom hate the police – make the sheriff as much an outsider as Sandra. But the Professor insists they take action, so the duo confront the Hunters, initiating the next level of their war.

Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna’s screenplay amplifies the thematic undercurrents of “Winter Lights” by casting its central character as a middle-aged black woman born in New Orleans. As the short story’s narrative grappled with the masculinity of its protagonist, a retired college professor, the film ambitiously injects racial, gender, and geographic tensions into the mix, to uneven but exciting effect nonetheless.

Sandra sees the hunters’ provocations as an extension of a familiar transgression – the world’s disrespect for black women – and has no problem taking matters into her own hands. Newton renders Sandra’s rage delicately, intimately. A few overplayed moments don’t dampen the performance’s overall restraint as Sandra savors her opponents and mourns her mother, with whom she had a complicated relationship.

It’s disappointing, then, when the script doesn’t always reflect that same level of confidence or subtlety. Higgins and Ogbonna stuff the narrative with a well-meaning but unwieldy backstory that registers as misaligned with Sandra’s character direction: She was a police officer in New Orleans but left town after Hurricane Katrina. , which made him realize the ease with which the city could abandon its black residents and the futility of his role in the force. She moved north with her mother, a cold-abhorring churchwoman, to take that tenure-track position at a mostly white university. Their already fractured relationship barely survived the move.

The goal, I guess, is to make Sandra more three-dimensional. But the backstory, suddenly revealed, coupled with her sporadically shown struggle to diversify her department (much to the chagrin of her colleague Arthur, played by Kai Lennox), makes Sandra look more like a symbol than a person.

When the writing moves away from these more brutal tendencies and settles into stripping away the layers of Sandra’s personality and her relationship to this city, God’s country is much more efficient. Sandra decides to follow the two men after another day of hunting, learning more about their life and their community. An initially poignant conversation about God with Nathan, whose mother Sandra learns is an organist like hers, suddenly turns sour – a twist that reveals the role race plays in guiding their interactions. And Sandra’s budding maternal relationship with her student, Gretchen (Tanaya Beatty), as well as a harrowing interaction with Samuel, highlight the undercurrent of gender-based violence that runs through the story more forcefully than ever. any speech.

Quieter moments harmonize beautifully with God’s countryDeAndre James Allen-Toole’s lush score and DP Andrew Wheeler’s photography (Petty offenses). The film makes excellent use of the vast Montana landscape (although the actual setting remains undetermined), which viewers absorb as they lay down plans as well as Sandra’s regular runs through the woods, accompanied by her dog. Snow-capped peaks and canyons overwhelm the senses, their beauty adding a sinister layer to this dangerous game.

As the film moves into day seven, a creeping sense of doom sets in. Sandra becomes more and more furious against the hunters and feels more alone in her fight against them. Although savvy viewers can easily predict God’s country‘s final moments, the journey there is still wild and satisfying.

About Victoria Rothstein

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