The atmospheric and sophisticated sensibilities of Sam Peckinpah, Tyler Sheridan, and even Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky levitate potently over Julian Higgin’s God’s Country, a restrained neo-western that takes its time with its slow-burn build-up, hooks you in the beginning, takes an emotionally charged turn in the middle, and unravels to an intense finale. Bolstered by an understated but deeply satisfying performance by Thandiwe Newton, this suspense drawer merges the elements of a character study with a revenge neo-Western. It’s an impressive debut feature that could generate some award nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards for Newton’s performance, Higgin’s skillful direction, and Andrew Wheeler’s meticulous cinematography. The film’s screenplay, which is a modern adaptation of James Lee Burke’s 1992 book Winter Light feels both literary and like a Peckinpah thriller all in one, which is about an aging professor attempting to combat trespasser hunters.
The film holds many great exchanges and moments, arguably the most mature debut feature to be released out of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival so far this year. Newton, in perhaps the finest performance of her career, plays Sandra, a former police officer and now lonely university professor who lives alone deep in the forests of Montana. Newton’s performance is understated, observant, and combative. The film, which is about her ongoing conflict with two local hunters who continue to park on her property without permission, ends up escalating into more fierce tension as the story unfolds. The film’s setting is Montana, where there is only one sheriff on duty, and the motto holds the ethos of the old West, where everyone was out for himself.
Sandra is from New Orleans and teaches public speaking classes at the local university. You wouldn’t know that because Newton’s performance is very muted, yet it’s filled with a wide range of emotions. When she’s not lecturing class, she is mostly alone as the camera is mostly observational. There is a substantial amount of running time where Sandra barely speaks as Higgin’s camera surveys her loneliness in her secluded house with her dog. Sandra is also grieving the recent loss of her severely ill mother, just before Christmas.
After spreading her ashes along the mountains in her vicinity, she spots a red Chevy pick-up parked near her house. She writes a note and sticks it on the window that kindly asks the hunter not to park there. The truck returns a second time, and she notices the note crinkled up on the ground. The truck belongs to brothers Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who appear in their camouflage, and Sandra immediately confronts them about their disregard and impoliteness in intruding on her property to use a gateway to go hunting. The brothers aren’t too contrite about Sandra’s request and explain to her that it’s 15 miles out of their way to hunt on the other side of the valley. The exchange doesn’t go as timidly as Sandra and Hope hoped it would, and it builds up an ongoing feud that becomes the basis of the narrative. After a third day of doing it, Sandra ends up towing their truck away; the brothers get even and shoot an arrow at her front door as a threat.
This leads to Sandra contacting law enforcement, which is Sheriff Deputy Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bob), who is the only patrolling office in the entire country that has a 300-mile jurisdiction. He brushes off Sandra’s concerns, and he can easily sense that she isn’t from Montana. He tells her about how the citizens in the ordinance mostly handle things themselves and how contacting the authorities often makes things worse. Sandra begins to realize she is surrounded by a wintry plateau of lawlessness where everything is stacked against her for being an independent woman of color. Sherrif Wolf can sense she is an independent and persistent woman. With her law enforcement background, she even collected evidence of the littered cigarette butts they left on the ground. She ends up joining him as he visits the brothers at their day jobs.
Tensions arise once they go to a Christmas tree lumber yard, in which Samuel and his fellow coworkers block Gus and Sandra from each side as they have their chainsaws in hand and are disguised in facemasks. It’s a very gripping scene, in which Sandra prevents the hostility by taking control of the intense situation. The co-workers hold a lot of tension towards the sheriff’s department, who’s suspended and on leave after shooting an unarmed man. Sandra shows a lot of empathy and expresses her sorrow for the co-worker’s loss. It’s at this moment where the film elevates itself from standard revenge movie tropes.
Meanwhile, Sandra has other problems to attend to at the university she lectures at. She’s on a university council board that consists mainly of older white men and is led by her neighbor, Arthur (Kai Lennon). Arthur talks about making the board more inclusive and bringing in more qualified instructors, not to meet a quota but to reflect a more diverse world. As promises aren’t upheld, Sandra feels trapped in a suffocating world that is designed to overpower her. There is an overstated visual motif in the film of deer that is clearly a metaphor for Sandra, which indicates Sandra’s suffering of always feeling merciless and being hunted down by a dominating world where the odds are stacked against her. We see this unravel from Sandra’s outside world, which her only option is to combat against it. Higgens’s visuals, along with Wheeler’s cinematography, are able to utilize some very arresting frames that bring a lot of texture that capture Sandra’s isolated world. Using mostly wide shots and empty spaces within frames, both in the interior and exterior shots, the camera is able to survey Sandra’s anxiety as it unfolds around her.
Both in terms of style and pacing, the film’s final 20 minutes or so recall the work of Sam Peckinpah, especially the tension builder that fleshes out a gripping climax. You never really know where the story is going to end. Each time you think the film is expected to stay within its genre conventions, it shakes it right up with one dramatically rich moment after the other. For instance, there is a greatly acted scene of Newton going into the church where she discusses her experiences with the church with the rival brother characters.
All around, Higgin’s has yielded a very satisfying debut feature that shows a very exciting filmmaker at work, where he holds a refreshing visual eye and a delicateness for character work as well. The film also holds a strong moral justice of what good neo-western westerns often do and hits many familiar beats while finding unexpected ones. What’s also refreshing is how this debut film explores some timely issues about gender dynamics, inclusion, and class but offers these ideals in a very mature and sophisticated manner instead of being didactic. The film also unfolds more as a rigorous tragedy by its final reel than a revenge fantasy; it rather feels like the work of a filmmaker wise above their years. With that, Higgin’s and his fellow collaborators should be proud of it.