GOD’S COUNTRY – Sundance Review

Written by Cassie Jo Ochoa

Bleak dramas are always in vogue, and God’s Country is the latest installment in the genre. The neo-western is a perfect environment for writers to mine whatever current cultural anxieties they see into captivating drama. That does come with its pitfalls, as characters can become generic and the narrative too specific, but it is generally worth the risk. Unfortunately, God’s Country falls into a few trappings that make it a less than satisfying experience. 

Thandiwe Newton stars as Sandra Guidry, a college professor whose tragic backstory is unfolded in spurts across the runtime. Sandra starts the film grieving her mother’s passing and spends most of the film wrapped in the icy chill of past mistakes. Surrounding her are sketches of good old boys and academic types that are designed to shade grey around her actions. As she comes into conflict with hunters and her coworkers, she’s forced into conflict with a population that puts its eyes to the ground as powerful men continue to assert their will.

In God’s Country the world is a cold and brutal place. The cinematography and score send a chill down the spine of anyone who is thinking of embracing the serenity of the mountains. The beauty of the wilderness is engulfed by the snow and director Julian Higgins makes sure you feel just as isolated as Sandra does. It’s effective to some degree, as the technicals heighten the dangerous environments better than the script does. Thandiwe Newton does a fantastic job with what she’s given, but with the characters that surround her, it’s hard to not see Sandra’s quest for setting the world right as meddling.

The major issue of the film is it uses a mask of pain to hide that it has not much to say. It’s a political thriller that briefly skims the surface of the tensions it plays with. The script tries to deliver a morally grey character study of a woman pushed too far by the systems that she’s entrapped in, but it bounces between injustices so quickly that it’s hard not to feel like these are two scripts fused on the collective pain of a country divided. By the time the credits roll there’s no cathartic moment to be found. 

God’s Country lacks the focus that would elevate this film to the next level. Thandiwe Newton is given an excellent showcase for her talents as a force of nature, but she’s given nothing to work off of. It’s an empty film that drives itself underground with barely a moment of lightness, which just leads to an unfulfilling experience.

Grade: B-

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