God's Country opens with a bereaved woman having a loved one cremated. That woman is Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), and it's just the first of several unpleasant scenarios she's about to face. A college professor living in a canyon somewhere in the mountainous West, she is all alone. She has no partner, no children, and now, we learn, no mother. Life consists of teaching and trying to get the department's head, Arthur (Kai Lennox), to consider diversity in filling a staff vacancy.
One morning, Sandra notices a strange red pickup truck on her property. It belongs to Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White). They're hunters who want to enter the woods in front of her place. She tells them they're on private land. The men don't care, returning another day. This tense situation escalates, and when Sandra enlists the local acting sheriff, Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), it escalates even further, to potentially dangerous levels.
Directed by Julian Higgins, God's Country is a riveting twist on a classic Western formula. Instead of sheriffs and outlaws, or black hats and white hats, the film reimagines the genre's conventions as a kind of blue state/red state showdown. Sandra originally hails from New Orleans; she's cosmopolitan and has liberal views. Nathan and Samuel are beer-drinking good-old-boys who hang out in a ramshackle old ranch house with an American flag substituting for a curtain. As the conflict heats up, the men take an overtly aggressive approach, whereas she attempts to play by the rules, perhaps somewhat naively thinking decorum will automatically win out. Enormous suspense is created from watching her realize that a more forceful attitude is necessary to triumph. That idea is mirrored in the subplot about her desire to convince Arthur to consider greater inclusivity in the workplace.
The story contains a number of smartly conceived sequences that add depth and nuance. Sandra's background provides an intriguing twist, changing our initial impression in a key manner. Her reason for leaving New Orleans, which she confides to Wolf, is heartbreaking at the same time that it illuminates her motivation for defending herself. A confrontation at a Christmas tree farm is yet another moment that makes us anxious, while adding an important layer of characterization. Best of all is a thoroughly unexpected scene that brings Sandra and Nathan together for a conversation that seems as though it might generate mutual empathy, only to detour into a slightly different direction.
Thandiwe Newton unleashes the finest, most fierce performance of her film career here. She gives Sandra vulnerability, but also toughness. Then, amazingly, she shows how the toughness covers up the vulnerability and how the vulnerability punctures through the toughness. The character could have seemed erratic, except that Newton is so precise in every acting choice that it works. On the supporting end, Jarsky is excellent as Nathan, a guy with a bad attitude who, unlike his pal, seems to recognize there's a line you don't cross. Bobb is another highlight, playing Wolf with a hint of fear, as though he knows what Nathan and Samuel are capable of.
A plot like God's Country typically leads to a specific place. That's true here, although how it happens is original. Everything culminates in a very long final shot that is absolutely perfect in driving home the themes. When the image cuts to black, you get shivers. This is a movie whose suspense comes not from shooting, fighting, and so on, but from a total understanding of who these characters are and how their individual issues are like gasoline and a match.
out of four
God's Country is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.