by George Wolf
It’s only September, but I’m taking out my Oscar scorecard, and writing in Thandiwe Newton. With a pen.
Because if she doesn’t get noticed for her astounding performance in God’s Country, there’s somerthing wrong with all of us.
The film is also an incredibly assured sophomore effort from director and co-writer Julian Higgins, expanding on the themes and insight hinted at nearly twenty years ago in his feature debut Mending Wall.
Newton stars as Cassandra Guidry, a professor at a small college near the mountain wilderness. The grief from her mother’s recent death is deep, but she’s committed to teaching her students the importance of persistence in the strive for change.
“Sandra” hopes that leaving a note on the truck windshield will change the behavior of two hunters (Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White), who trespass on her property. It does not, and a battle of wills slowly escalates into a powder keg that Higgins uses to comment on the divides in this country that often seem impossible to navigate.
While Sandra struggles with the reaction from the local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), we learn more about her past, and about things that make her keenly aware of where this situation could he headed. And as Higgins advances the narrative with onscreen text marking off the days, Sandra’s belief that “we all gotta play by the same rules if this is gonna work” can also apply to her push for diversity in the university’s search for a new Dean.
Higgins’s camerawork is barren and cold, buoyed by starkly beautiful cinematography from Andrew Wheeler. His script treads with care and precision. Nothing feels like a cliche, even though God’s Country lives in areas where cliches often roam freely. These characters and their flaws feel familiar, but Higgins finds intimate ways to offer hope for redemption, if only for the briefest of exchanges.
And why won’t Sandra let the parking thing go? Newton makes it achingly personal, carrying the weariness of swimming against the current in her every steely glare. Her final scene, though nearly dialog-free, is exquisitely devastating and sure to follow you home.
Just how many “no big deals” are allowed before there is indeed a big deal? And who decides?
God’s Country is full of the persistent ugliness that plagues ours. Yet none of its issues are raised with a heavy hand. Measured and often visual storytelling is at work here, carried on the shoulders of a sensational lead performance.