Thursday, September 8, 2022

Standing up for herself in 'God's Country'


  Throughout its 102-minute running time, I wondered why Sandra Guidry -- a character played by Thandiwe Newton in a finely wrought performance -- decided to move from New Orleans to the isolated wilderness of a western town that hosts a small college and a local populace that doesn't eagerly welcome strangers.
 Director Julian Higgins, who-cowrote the movie's screenplay with Shaye Ogbonna, does answer the question. Victimized by hurricane Katrina and feeling guilty for being unable to protect her mother, Sandra left her job as a New Orleans police officer to take a tenure-track position at the local college. 
  Sandra brought her aging mother with her but mom didn't last long; the movie opens with Sandra attending her mother's cremation. 
  Sandra, perhaps the town's only Black resident, may have wanted extreme isolation or maybe the framework of the story doesn't quite support everything Higgins has in mind.
    God's Country, by the way, was based on Winter Light, a short story by James Lee Burke, which may be why the film sometimes reflects the kind of sketching often found in short fiction.
     In addition, a 2015 short film, also by Higgins, told roughly the same story -- only the main character was named Roger Guidry and was played by a male. I've never seen the short film but it seems obvious that the gender switch added new resonance.
    All that aside, Higgins creates a tightly woven drama that pits Sandra against two brothers (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White), the head of her department at the college (Kai Lennox), and her own past. 
   Sandra's patience faces extreme tests -- both with departmental racism and the two hostile brothers who won't take "no" for answer when it comes to trespassing on her property where they want to hunt.
    Higgins wisely softens the lines of a revenge saga, creating an unexpectedly affecting scene in which one of the brothers comes close to recognizing a common bond with Sandra. 
     The local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) sets the stage for an explosive conclusion when he expresses his reluctance to respond after one of the brothers fires an arrow into Sandra’s front door. Folks in these parts settle differences themselves, he tells her, upholding a mythic western ethos of self-sufficiency.
     But even the exasperated sheriff doesn’t always meet expectation. As a guest at a school Christmas party, Bobb's Gus Wolf -- who's actually the acting sheriff -- labors to understand Sandra. Despite her service as a police officer, her background couldn't be more different than his.
     Newton wisely reins in Sandra's anger as the movie references other issues.
     An example: A question about sexual abuse arises when one of Sandra's best students (Tanya Beatty) shares a story about inappropriate behavior by the head of the English department.
     Shot in Montana, God's Country isn't likely to serve as an advertisement for Big Sky Country, although we're never told the name of the town or state where Sandra has landed. Higgins and cinematographer Andrew Wheeler do their best to capture landscapes chastened and made dreary by a harsh winter. 
      God’s Country may not be a small gem. But with considerable help from Newton, Higgins creates a somber portrait of an isolated but iron-willed woman trying to assert her power in a hostile environment.


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