Thandiwe Newton delivers a career-best in a thriller bristling with racial tension.
God’s Country shows a place in America rarely described. There’s a vastness, an emptiness to Sandra Guidry’s (Thandiwe Newton) home. She’s moved from New Orleans out to the country. It’s the sort of place where a single man in law enforcement covers hundreds of miles of terrain. A Black professor in an all-white department at a local university, Guidry lives in her house alone on acres of land, prime hunting ground for those hoping to shoot and score. Julian Higgins’s thriller plays out like a matchstick, a burn that erodes everything until there’s nothing left to destroy.
For Newton, it’s a subdued role, playing a woman at the edge of her wits. Tremendous as Guidry, the actor offers up a deep sense of anger and pain, a distance from everyone and everything happening around her. Guidry’s recovering from the loss of her mother. In that process, there’s also been a loss of faith. Newton shows little emotion in this capacity, a coldness washing over her character and the rest of Higgins’ first film.
As for the writer/director, the movie represents the first step towards hopefully something bigger. It’s a worthy debut that crackles and prickles the senses, meticulously and gorgeously composed. Every shot in the film pushes forth the idea that Higgins knows what he’s doing, that the audience is in assured hands during this updated form of a Western.
One day, Guidry finds a red truck on her property, accompanied by two local white male hunters. Brothers who have been on the wrong side of the law previously, the hunters enter into a game of chess with the professor, testing each other mentally and physically. As the situation ever so slowly turns more violent, Guidry’s exhaustion comes to the forefront. Racial tension permeates her life. She exists without a sense of complete safety or ownership, surrounded by overstepping white men.
God’s Country fills the supporting cast with actors that are recognizable without being famous. All of them give good, if not great, performances in this small, pointed story, filling the spaces around Newton. She remains the focus, though, remaining composed for most of the film. Her calmness is more telling than her outbursts, stuffing each scene with years of slights against her. Newton is tremendous as Guidry, a character that allows her to offer a sustained, steady acting triumph.
Newton is tremendous as Guidry, a character that allows her to offer a sustained, steady acting triumph.
The film is unsuspecting in its prescience and relation to the current moment. Higgins crafts a story packed with racial tension, with micro and macro aggressions towards the single person of color in his film. He seems hyper-aware of what he’s doing, leaving nothing to interpretation, forcing the audience to think about how most of our country thinks and acts. God’s Country is a divided movie — horrors exist without repercussions, racism exists without culpability, and consequences happen without change.
If nothing else, God’s Country remains a confident debut, brimming with ideas and competence. The Western drama/thriller provides the capacity for a career-best performance from Newton and an opportunity to make audiences slowly uncomfortable, make their hairs stand up over time, and give a sense of prolonged anxiety. Higgins’s film is a simple, straightforward battle for land and control; the outcome is already somewhat decided — there are no winners in this fight. Except for (maybe) Thandiwe Newton.
God’s Country takes you places you need to see starting on September 16th in theatres.