My favorite of the Festival this year, Julian Higgins’ feature debut centers a masterly Thandiwe Newton and reframes James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light” as a piercing tale of intractable American tensions. It’s a slow, quiet film as they go, but it never lists into tedium or repetitiveness. It’s still and crisp in its movements, both sweeping and intimate in its cinematography, and deeply impressive for its moral tangibility at every turn.
Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a college professor living alone in the rural Montana mountains, who is the only Black person for miles and possibly the only Black woman with whom most people she meets out there have ever had an extended personal interaction. Not that Sandra interacts much: she keeps to herself, grieving, we learn, the death of her overbearing, slightly disturbed mother. Her backstory is discovered with ingenious patience as the film progresses, and though the impetus for this slow-burn thriller feels like it could apply to any out-west situation, Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna brilliantly weave in details that pay specific tribute to African-American women like Sandra — a character named, deliberately, after Sandra Bland, which convinced Newton to take the role.
That impetus is a classic for these kinds of rural tension stories: someone is disrespecting the sovereignty of the land. In this case, the culprits are some hunters who have been parking their red pickup on Sandra’s sizable acreage so they can get easier access to some hunting grounds. Soon, her polite but curt requests for them to stay away escalate into threats and resentments, and, step by step, Sandra’s bigger-person attempts to appeal to the hunters’ goodwill, the local police’s influence, and the general moral fabric of society become less and less likely to have any effect. As far as that plot is concerned, the protagonist could be anyone — in the initial story, it’s a gruff white man. But, upon reading the line in the story in which one of the hunters remarks of the lead, “I heard about you,” Higgins and Ogbonna realized that the story changes intriguingly and powerfully if a Black female character is at its center.
They were absolutely correct. Sandra Guidry is a character we hardly ever see portrayed with this much austere truthfulness and believability in cinema. The ways she handles herself in face-to-face confrontations regarding land disputes, armed aggressors, and even institutional racism and misogyny in her university workplace are commendably layered and rich with real-world meaning and resonance. Without giving away too many of this tale’s multifaceted and effective backstory reveals, elements of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation — as well as the effects of organized religion on Black communities — are interpolated into a harrowing concoction carried off exquisitely by Higgins and Ogbonna’s writing. Yet most of the film’s power is down to Newton, truly a shining star of the modern screen and its culture, whose rich intelligence is apparent in her every decision as she brings Sandra to life. Nothing is what it initially seems, and yet plenty of long-standing tensions and terrible truths are dragged into the light and shown to be just as ugly as your worst fears imagined, and then some. It’s a film — to use a loaded expression — for our times.
It’s also the kind of head-turning film and performance that renews your faith in what’s to come. Higgins is a director to watch. Ogbonna is a writer to watch (although his work on the bonkers 2017 film Lowlife can be watched now, and is quite the experience). Newton, though all eyes are already on her, should be well-congratulated for what she does here. God’s Country is a festival standout this year, and a gem that will hopefully receive its due on release. Well done to Sundance for supporting it.