Written by Taylor Baker
“She got used to being unhappy.”
Julian Higgins’s first feature film “God’s Country” is a slow burn drama in which Thandiwe Newton stars as Sandra Guidry. A college professor whose mother passed away before the film begins and we witness the cremation of in the opening minutes. Newton’s Guidry briefly lectures her students in those opening in a stilted attempt to cement her role as a college professor; the classroom setting we’re exposed to doesn’t come back over the seven-day period depicted in the film and rings hollower the longer the film runs on. In this opening lecture sequence she self aggrandizes telling the classroom how to act to make the world in a way she thinks it should be. Though there’s scarcely enough time for her character to be expressed thoroughly in the classroom it is apparent that she is uninterested in discussing the process of critical faculties or asking the why’s. She’s focused on the how’s and absent any interrogation of whether or not she’s correct. This uninterrogated interiority continually manifests itself throughout the film as its largest undergirding flaw. Leaving us detached from not just Newton’s character but the entirety of the film itself.
Built on static images and slow zooms, with some indelicate edits that seem as if it’s still in rough-cut rather than finalized. “God’s Country” seems out of time and though it hinges on our main characters’ past, it is entirely irreflective. Slow melodies paired with external shots of snow-dappled hillsides and dirt roads are where Higgins builds a cogent tone to bring the viewer in. But clumsy and forced metaphors about race, community, organ playing, and rights undermine the more naturalistic strengths he conjures. Its restrained presentation and abrasive tonality create an unclear reductive and unexamined world where Newton’s Sandra is constantly reacting with a sense of indignity to poorly presented slights, abuses of power, and harsh circumstances. Through trying to be exceedingly topical and restrained “God’s Country” fails to build out a sense of attachment and emotionality to the viewer. Leaving us as cold as Newton appears to be walking the snow touched hills.
“God’s Country” was screened as part of 2022 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.
You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on Letterboxd, Twitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.