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Sundance Film Festival Review: Thandiwe Newton Shines in ‘God’s Country’

Every so often, a project comes along that gives a trusted familiar face a chance to shine in a lead role. Julian Higgins‘ aesthetically cold and tense thriller God’s Country gives that opportunity to Thandiwe Newton.

Newton won an Emmy for her supporting role on HBO’s Westworld but she gets to stand front-and-center throughout God’s Country and her performance often says so much without saying anything at all. As the movie opens, capturing the bleak and sparse mountainous terrain, Sandra (Newton) is overseeing her mother’s cremation. She then buries the ashes on her land and must try and navigate grief, while continuing her day-to-day life as a professor.

As if she wasn’t dealing with enough, Sandra notices a pick-up truck on her land. She’s immediately suspicious because it appears Sandra is used to being alone without any visitors out to her farm. She monitors the situation but finally decides to leave a note on the windshield, in a first step to assure they know her property is private. The note doesn’t do the trick, so she eventually confronts to two hunters, Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and Samuel (Jefferson White), who have no interest in hearing anything she has to say.

The police aren’t helpful when Sandra brings the issue to them and advise her not to cause trouble. Sandra wants her property to be respected and takes the matter into her own hands in making sure just that occurs. Of course, everyone around town writes her off as crazy and that she is just going through a hard time.

God’s Country, on top of being a successful thriller, is about a woman who is tired of not being heard. Sandra can feel every look and micro aggression thrown her way in the supermarket or around town simply for existing. When the police chief asks her name, he immediately asks, “Where are you from originally.” Sandra curtly responds, “New Orleans.”

Every bit of Sandra’s exhaustion and rightful distrust of those around her is seen in Newton’s performance. Her eyes tell Sandra’s entire story and that’s the sign of an impressive performance. All Newton needs to do is glance at another character and we know exactly what Sandra is thinking, where she’s been and what she’s ben through. She’s truly magnificent.

Higgins builds the film’s tension steadily through the weeklong argument Sandra has with the two hunters. This is God’s Country at its most effective because it occasionally gets distracted with subplots regarding Sandra’s job. While it all fits in to the overarching theme of the movie, it feels like a tacked-on addition to a movie that has already proven to be satisfying.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Matt Passantino

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