DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Julian Higgins’ feature directorial debut, God’s Country.

It’s officially awards season, and with it comes the onslaught of critically-acclaimed, heavy-hitting features tailor-made for golden statues and high praise. Enter God’s Country, the Thandiwe Newton-led thriller that first took this year’s Sundance Film Festival by storm. Starring Newton as a grieving former cop-turned-college professor named Sandra, the film aims to be a modern Western thriller.

After losing her mother, Sandra finds herself isolated on her spacious Montana property, nestled in gorgeous, snow-covered mountains. When two hunters, Nathan and Samuel, park their truck on her property without permission, Sandra confronts them. Unfortunately, they don’t heed her wishes, and the pair continues trespassing on her property. What transpires next is a battle of wills that culminates in tragedy. 

Wolf and Sandra sit on a window sill during a holiday party with a snowy scene behind them in God's Country.

Pictured: Jeremy Bobb as Wolf and Thandiwe Newton as Sandra in GOD’S COUNTRY

Besides Newton, the flick also stars Joris Jarsky as Nathan, Jefferson White as Samuel, Jeremy Bobb as Wolf, Kai Lennox as Arthur and Tanaya Beatty as Gretchen. Julian Higgins takes the helm for his feature directorial debut with a script from Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna. 

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First and foremost, God’s Country is classified as a thriller, but I don’t consider it one. Well, not a “hard” thriller, at least. It feels like a misnomer. A more apt descriptor would be a drama with thriller elements. This is primarily due to its uneven pacing. The story starts strong, then flounders somewhere in the middle, slogging through a few narrative stumbling blocks until it kicks into high gear in the last 20 minutes of the film. Its runtime clocks in at one hour and 42 minutes, mind you. 

For example, an expositional scene smack dab in the center of the flick would be better served toward the beginning as we’re getting to know Sandra. Moreover, it’s not necessary for Sandra’s development, although it does add some context. We learn everything we need to know about this character from the get-go.

Pacing hiccups aside, the story addresses central and timely themes, such as racism, misogyny, the efficacy of law enforcement (or lack thereof), white supremacy, grief, the #MeToo movement, environmental stewardship and white entitlement, notably how little white folks (especially men) care for the land on which they’re standing. 

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God’s Country seamlessly hammers these themes home. Much of how it conveys said themes resonates deeply with me as a woman. It was a visceral, frustrating experience. Some parts genuinely made me feel tense and scared for Sandra. As women, or anyone who’s not a white cishet male, we never truly feel safe. The film doesn’t pull punches where this is concerned, illustrating the fear we feel even in our own homes and how we’re patronized, infantilized and scrutinized by men. 

Additionally, the movie depicts the double standards for white men, particularly between Sandra and her boss and Sandra and the town’s acting sheriff.

Sandra stands in front of a split log in the snow with her house behind her in God's Country.

Pictured: Thandiwe Newton as Sandra in GOD’S COUNTRY

Some reviews heavily criticize Sandra’s choices, and you might find yourself doing the same, but I understand where she’s coming from. I believe women, people of color, trans and nonbinary folks are the target demographic, and that’s okay. God’s Country can be for everyone, but not everyone will understand it. 

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The camerawork is fantastic throughout. Andrew Wheeler wields the camera with ease, taking in the stunning, expansive scenery. Many wide shots frame Sandra by herself, illustrating her isolation and loneliness. I’d venture to say it’s the same for other characters, i.e., the hunters. Everyone in this film is lonely. They’re solitary islands talking at each other but never genuinely listening. Instead, they burrow themselves deeper into their loneliness, allowing the surrounding expanse to swallow them whole. 

The muted, somber hues and dark tones convey the pervasive inner darkness and emptiness everyone feels, namely Sandra. In addition, God’s Country showcases a lot of animal symbolism, including a mother deer and her child making a few appearances — an especially poignant symbol given the passing of Sandra’s mother. 

Thandiwe Newton carries this film superbly, even through the shaky parts of the script. She delivers an understated, nuanced, grounded performance, unleashing the acting big guns when certain moments call for them. Newton’s Sandra is an empathetic, vulnerable soul who’s kind but takes no shit, and Newton depicts this beautifully. She’s a true star. 

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Overall, God’s Country is worth a watch if you’re a Thandiwe Newton fan or if you’re interested in watching the above themes explored in a dramatic thriller setting. Despite a script with some plot kinks, the film boasts engaging supportive performances that’ll most likely infuriate you, along with brilliant cinematography and interesting camera choices. Julian Higgins’ debut is promising, and there’s certainly room for growth. He’s got potential as an up-and-coming filmmaker.

Sandra wears a black cardigan and shirt while walking down a dimly lit corridor in God's Country.

Pictured: Thandiwe Newton as Sandra in GOD’S COUNTRY

Watch it if you need a healthy dose of Thandiwe being a badass (as she usually is). 

God’s Country is now playing in theaters

This article was originally published on 9/16/22.

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Melody McCune
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