Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 9, with a VOD release to follow on Tuesday, October 4.
The premise of “God’s Country” paints the proverbial “two Americas” with the broadest possible brushstrokes, pitting a Black, female humanities professor against two white guys in a red pickup truck. Nobody mentions who they voted for, but the preconceived notions write themselves. Yet the film digs deeper with each passing scene, subverting our first impressions of each character before letting them prove they are exactly who we thought they were. Julian Higgins’ excellent film constantly dangles redemption in front of our faces, begging us to imagine a better world, but ultimately delivers a stark reminder of how bitterly divided the country is.
We first meet Sandra, played by Thandiwe Newton, as she watches her mother’s cremation. “God’s Country” follows Sandra for the first week of her life without her mother, conveniently labeling each of the seven days. She teaches public speaking at a rural college we never learn the name of, and lives by herself in a nearby canyon. The cold, remote setting is the perfect place to get some thinking done. Which, in a film about people who let their anxieties drive them to make horrible decisions, is not a great thing!
One day after work, Sandra notices a mysterious red pickup truck parked on her property. When she leaves a note asking its owners to park somewhere else, they return the next day. The truck belongs to brothers and hunting buddies Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who claim they just need a place to park, even if they look like professional seat fillers at a Trump rally. They never say anything about her race or gender, but the sad reality is that, in a country that sorts everyone into two massive red and blue teams that have to compete in every sphere of society, they don’t have to. People who look like them are just not supposed to be friends with people who look like her. Everyone quickly doubles down on their worst assumptions about each other, using a truck parked in Sandra’s yard as a proxy battlefield in a war of attrition.
It’s a fair question to ask whether Sandra’s initial fear of Nathan and Samuel is completely justified. They never explicitly threaten her safety, and their initial actions toward her result in little more than inconvenience. Is she morally wrong to use external factors to pass judgement on people she doesn’t know? And is she statistically correct in assuming men like this could put her in danger? The movie explores both questions, and while it reaches no easy answer to the former, the latter ends up being an undeniable “yes.”
You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like the second coming of “Get Out,” but you’d also be wrong. To describe “God’s Country” as the thriller it’s billed as would be a half-truth, as well. The first act is downright Hitchcockian, setting up a battle of wills between Sandra and two mysterious men who refuse to stop trespassing on her property. But it abruptly shifts course and becomes a leisurely character study that places its lethally high stakes on the back burner in favor of a workplace conundrum. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the meandering film remembers it has a premise to pay off, and snaps back into thriller mode to deliver a violent ending that hits all the harder because of the added context.
Sandra calls the acting sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), whose utter uselessness is summed up by his declaration that “around here, involving the authorities just makes things worse.” Sandra watches his half-hearted attempt at confronting Nathan and Samuel on her behalf, and while he does little to calm her nerves, she becomes fascinated by the two men with the truck. She sees Nathan stocking shelves at a store, lacking all the bravado he demonstrated in her yard as he timidly tries to hold onto his low level job. She follows him and sees him caring for his aging mom, and even tries to bond with him over their mothers’ love of church hymns.
Around this point, the battle over the red pickup truck takes a backseat to a more immediate concern in Sandra’s life. Her department is hiring a new professor, and her desire to see a person of color recommended for the role comes up short. The convoluted hiring process, as well as her male colleagues’ seeming inability to engage in anything more than meaningless small talk, clearly frustrates her more than the actual result. One hire means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but the way the process plays out does not inspire confidence that things will get better in the near future.
Her condescending neighbor and department head, Arthur (Kai Lennox), is a constant thorn in her side throughout this process. And when Sandra learns that Arthur is friendly with the men who keep parking on her property, the two stories begin to converge. Gus and Samuel pose a much bigger threat to Sandra’s safety, but Arthur’s microaggressions are a more constant presence in her life. Seeing the three men together provokes a visceral response in Sandra that drives the movie toward a thrilling conclusion.
A film that relies so heavily on one character was always going to succeed or fail based on Thandiwe Newton, and the Emmy winner delivers one of the best performances of her career. Her portrayal of Sandra deserves praise for being so utterly complete. The borderline Arctic setting makes the film seem like it takes place in the unprobed regions of the characters’ subconscious minds, bringing out their rawest emotions. At the same time, Sandra’s everyday interactions with her colleagues and neighbors are beautifully mundane, allowing us to see both sides of her. She is brilliant and kind, but flawed nonetheless. Her empathy toward Gus and Samuel is admirable, yet she never demonstrates an ability to judge people on any criterion other than her own personal preferences. The idea that someone else might choose to live their life differently from her never seems to cross her mind. A scene where she shows up at Samuel’s house and screams “why are you like this? You’re not helping yourself!” would probably work well as a political litmus test. But more than anything, she is still driven by grief. The loss of her mother, combined with guilt about the ways she could have done more to help her, clouds every decision that Sandra makes.
In a revealing conversation with the acting sheriff, we learn that Sandra was a New Orleans cop in a past life, but left the force after her department’s mishandling of a hurricane response. She gave up her badge for a more comfortable life in academia, but is now forced to watch the same kind of institutional failure take place at the university. The worldview of “God’s Country” could be described as sympathetic towards individuals, but harsh on institutions. Whether it’s the NOPD, the church that manipulated Sandra’s elderly mother, or the all-white English department that she works in, bad institutions hurt everyone. They incentivize corruption in those with power, and those without power are inevitably worn down until they become the worst possible version of themselves.
Julian Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna show us the potential that lies in almost every character, but the movie is filled with would-be redemption stories. Its villains show moments of humanity, before ultimately acting on their worst impulses. Its protagonist makes an effort to empathize with her tormentors, but is still pushed towards violence. In “God’s Country,” almost everyone possesses the ability to be better. They just choose not to.
“God’s Country” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.