“God’s Country” is the latest offering in a trend of reimagining both the Western and the thriller, as this film is also tagged, with Black leads. Thandiwe Newton, a 2018 Emmy winner for “Westworld,” stars as Sandra Guidry in an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s 1992 short story “Winter Light” about a college professor who gets into a battle of wills with two hunters who trespass on her property in Montana.
For filmmaker Julian Higgins, his feature-length debut is the second time around for the core story. Back in 2015, Higgins directed a successful short of the same name with, in keeping with the story, an older white male protagonist as lead. Obviously, a Black female star brings a different nuance to the narrative, but the real question may be whether Higgins and his story collaborator Shaye Ogbonna, a Black male writer, weave a tale worthy of her troubles.
We are introduced to Sandra as a grieving woman who has just lost her mother. She is also, as far as the eye can see, a lone woman of color living in an isolated area of the country. This circumstance already raises eyebrows regarding her choices: While the U.S. may technically be a free country, it is not as safe for Americans of color as it typically is for white Americans. In fact, safety, beyond just redlining, has historically been a key factor in why Black and other non-white Americans have congregated together. Safety tends to be an issue for many women as well. The film later explains this curious circumstance by revealing Sandra was once a cop in her native New Orleans. The implication here is that she is tougher, more fearless and perhaps better equipped than other women to boldly challenge the two trespassers.
To that end, Sandra takes charge by singlehandedly towing the hunters’ truck off her property. When that doesn’t deter them, she enlists the sheriff, even brazenly accompanying him as he questions the men, letting them know that she and she alone is the complainant. While there is nothing wrong with Sandra advocating for herself, in practice, it makes her a target.
Adding more intrigue — or perhaps concern is more apt in the point of the story — is that Sandra appears to become the aggressor, even inviting caricatured Karen comparisons. One example is when she chides her neighbor and colleague for not being bothered that the two men are on his property. Some of Sandra’s actions also hint of outsider entitlement, in which those new to a community feel they can change it at will, ignoring established traditions and customs. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Sandra deserves what comes to her, only that she may have stoked the fire to accelerate its occurrence.
Because Sandra is the rare professor of color in an overwhelmingly white male-dominated environment, “God’s Country” explores other issues as well. Of course, her decision to challenge her colleagues on issues of diversity is in line with the bravery so many in academia display despite knowing the retaliation likely to come for speaking up. In the #MeToo arena, Sandra does in fact overstep when a graduate assistant confides in her about no longer wanting to work for a powerful professor whom she feels is crossing the line. Instead of respecting the victim’s comfort level, Sandra gives into her ego and sets out to best him, betraying the young woman’s confidence.
As these elements suggest, much about “God’s Country” is provocative, raising critical questions about boundaries, environmental stewardship, community, inclusion, grief and more. It is, however, a slow burn, requiring patience and attention. And though Newton is primarily joined by Jefferson White (“Yellowstone”) and Joris Jarsky (“The Little Things”) as the hunters, Jeremy Bobb as the acting sheriff (“Godless,” which shares some similarities to this film), and Kai Lennox as her neighbor and ringleader at work, the weight of this film is on Newton’s shoulders. And, as always, she delivers.
In that regard, Sandra is the complex Black female character for which many have advocated. But the film’s success might just boil down to whether or not you find her choices believable for her circumstance and geographic location. Also, because there is no clear, unequivocal victory at the end, the question left hanging is: Was any of this worth Sandra’s trouble in the first place? Does she lose too much in the process to even justify the battle?
“God’s Country” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.