“God’s Country” belongs in a time capsule.
The indie drama shows how woke storytelling can crush a film’s creative soul. The plot’s potential is clear, and the cast is capable of spinning something profound out of the themes in play.
Yet over and again a woke hand reaches into the narrative and rips out the film’s beating heart.
Thandiwe Newton stars as Sandra, a professor in a Montana town that didn’t help Joe Biden win the 2020 election. She’s mourning the loss of her mother as the story opens, but her grief is interrupted by hunters parked on her wooded property.
They didn’t ask permission to deposit their red (get it?) truck on her driveway, and she’s none too happy about it.
That tension grows after Sandra asks local law enforcement to have her back in the dustup. There’s little they can do, they claim, forcing the professor to take matters into her own hands. Her empathy makes some headway with one of the hunters (Joris Jarsky), but others in the community (including her boss) aren’t receptive to her progressive ways.
Based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke, “God’s Country” is two movies in one. The main story is clear – a showdown between an enlightened Sandra and yokels with little patience for her book learnin’ and fancy talkin’.
— Hollywood Stock Exchange (@HSXMOVIES) February 11, 2022
First-time director Julian Higgins has a genre story on his hands, but he refuses to lean into its trappings. The pace is slow, and Sandra proves challenging to root for on the surface. She’s withdrawn and focused, only coming to life when she’s in a classroom setting.
The “second” film offers an academic showdown between Sandra and her (presumably) bigoted peers. Higgins handles the B story with all the grace of Michael Moore on Election Day.
Sandra’s push for a diversity hire runs into a brick wall. Given the tenor of our times, she could have had her boss’ scalp, and a hefty bonus to boot, for her Identity Politics crusade (even in a red state).
Instead, it’s part of Sandra’s downward spiral. And when the two movies fuse into one “God’s Country” goes down for the count.
Sandra’s connection with a local cop leads to the film’s big reveal, another absurd note in a film swimming in them.
Need an example?
Why would one of the film’s academic all-stars be seen with the local knuckle draggers, let alone act like they’re long-lost friends?
“God’s Country” can’t resist a few genre tropes, but the screenplay shrewdly gives Sandra some palpable flaws. Her push for progress reveals her self-absorbed pose when an attempt to support a female peer blows up in her face.
Sandra never veers into a super heroine with guns a-blazing, either. Instead, her moral outrage grows by degrees as the injustices pile up around her. The screenplay still delivers some ham-fisted moments unworthy of Newton.
There’s little the actress can do to make Sandra’s journey realistic or revelatory.
It goes without saying Higgins and co. paint the red state types as backward, while Sandra’s flawed soul is the film’s moral core. We’ve come to expect that lopsided storytelling from Hollywood, Inc., but the film’s woke impulses make matters worse.
The film’s best sequence takes place in a church. Sandra meets one of her stalkers and, rather than demean his faith she uses the moment to find common ground. It’s a wonderfully directed scene and, potentially, a way for “God’s Country” to find its purpose.
Instead, it’s left behind for a collection of victimhood tics that, no matter how artfully assembled, can’t sustain a feature film.
HiT or Miss: “God’s Country” gussies up its genre story with arthouse aspirations before the film’s woke messaging arrives.