‘God’s Country’ is the Crème de la Crème of Sundance 2022

"Sometimes it feels like things never change. But I promise you they do. They have to."
Gods Country

This review of Julian Higgins’ God’s Country is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance archive.

People seem to have the impression Sundance is overflowing with great movies. Relative to most festivals, they’re not wrong. There are plenty of good ones. But that’s only because Sundance is the biggest stage for new filmmakers. These are still films by primarily new filmmakers, which means the average project has noteworthy elements but ultimately feels like a freshman or sophomore effort. But every year, you stumble across a few that feel like they don’t belong, that feel elevated above the common misgivings of the rest. This year, there’s Fire of Love, Navalny, Resurrection, and God’s Country

Writer-director Julian Higgins has been behind the camera directing shorts and TV series for well over a decade, and it shows. The screenplay he wrote with Shaye Ogbonna is a tonal and thematic maze that would be difficult for anyone to pull off. And it would not be pull-off-able without Thandiwe Newton. In the scope of her 31-year career, this is anything but a minor work. She’s played everyone from Mission: Impossible romantic lead to conscious AI brothel madam to Condoleeza Rice. But Sandra Guidry is one of the hardest Newton characters to forget.

She lives alone in the snowy Montana wilderness and teaches public speaking (quite well, I might add) at a University nearby. Instead of one central conflict, or even a few, Sandra balances several, all that could carry their own weight: the death of her mother, the grating process of prospecting a diverse pool of new hire candidates as the only Black woman on staff, hunters that won’t respect her requests to stop trespassing, and others – unfolding and historical – I don’t want to spoil. 

It doesn’t help that the old white people in the tiny surrounding towns give off racist undertones in their long, rude bouts of staring, and the people her own age act casually condescending, for one, or all, of several reasons one might guess. What’s more, all the conflicts mentioned overlap relentlessly, weaving in and out of each other, making things more complicated for Sandra around every turn. 

It all takes place over a week, and the pace burns back and forth between a creeping, stalking cadence, which sheds unexpected bits of light on everyone involved, and a sort of “attack, be attacked” cadence, which picks up once the retaliations escalate. The hunters are the conflict that sparks the real fuse. It starts with Sandra towing their car after three days of being ignored. It continues when they shoot an arrow into her door late at night. That would send most people running, but Sandra is ironclad, strategic, wise. That’s only the beginning.

Higgins carefully toes the line in presenting her as victim and instigator, tormented and in control. Her antagonists do a fair amount of switching between the two at her hand. But Higgins doesn’t mix signals about whose cause is just. That’s the difference between Sandra and the hunters’ provocations: Sandra’s fighting back. It’s either that or leave town. And she’s not leaving. She insists they respect her rights and stands her ground regardless of how they respond.

She tries to get the law involved, but unfortunately for Sandra, there’s only one cop, and he’s more or less powerless. The other, the sheriff on administrative leave, recently shot a tree farm worker’s cousin and sent a wave of distrust through the area. That leaves matters in her own hands and puts her at the crux of a decision she has to make over and over again: will she fight violence with violence, or can she break the cycle? 

“Maybe it takes some sacrifice to break the cycle,” she wonders aloud. But that doesn’t make it easy. Or clear. And God’s Country gets that. It allows the situation to be messy, constantly in need of reevaluation. It brings Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale to mind, another film about a woman being flanked from all sides – one that constantly asks the viewer to reconsider the situation and to consider the cycle of violence and what makes it cyclical.

God’s Country is a hard film to categorize, which is always a good thing. It’s a grief drama that winds its way into a revenge thriller with some home invasion tricks, all with the backdrop of peaceful, breathtaking landscapes (shot by Andrew Wheeler). Incredible sequences bookend it. It dips its toe into some interesting thoughts on nature, animals, local politics, and the soul. And it beckons people to think and act without sacrificing subtlety or creativity. That might be the best thing a film can do. 

Luke Hicks: Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.