“God’s Country” is a the most interesting fall drama that you will never let yourself love. “Adult” in the grownup sense, thought-provoking, hot button-hitting and unpredictably predictable, it makes a fascinating showcase for Thandiwe Newton and invites more than one spirited debate about its characters, themes and issues on the ride home.
Director Julian Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna — TV veterans — introduce issues of race, class and the American ideal challenged in a story of an escalating conflict enfolding privacy and property rights, tribalism and white entitlement. It’s got a lot to digest and frustrate, and a bit to excuse.
Newton plays Cassandra, a woman we meet as she says good-bye to a loved-one at the funeral home’s crematorium. She is gutted, guarded and solitary.. Newton and the filmmakers reveal her backstory in layers that they peel away one patient layer at a time.
Cassandra teaches at a college in Big Sky country — remote Montana — and we get the feeling that her public speaking students get something more meaningful than the simple skills needed to not panic while preparing and delivering a speech. But the New Orleans native is the only Black face in her department. And she and another woman on the faculty are fighting an uphill battle in trying to get the hidebound tenured white males to shake “the same old way of doing things.”
At home, she’s got the company of an old Labrador and the great views her hillside chateau affords. She seems isolated, but her old colleague and new department chair (Kai Lennox) lives a few acres over.
But that’s of little comfort when she has to deal with camo-clad pickup-trucking locals who figure her property is just a parking lot and entryway to their hunting grounds. She leaves them a note, and finds a spattered bird and the note torn up. She tells them (Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White) in polite but firm terms, “before you park on someone’s property have to come and ask.”
We don’t need a translator to know what there “I heard about you,” comeback means.
Lines have been drawn, and as anybody who’s ever lived away from the cities knows, the offending beer-swilling hunters are the ones to take the quickest offense. Next thing we know she’s giving evidence and filing a complaint with a reluctant sheriff’s deputy (Jeremy Bobb). Next thing the deputy knows, she’s following him to make sure he goes and warns these two off.
Naturally, he knows them. Naturally, they know him. And no, she’s not interested in his “out here, things are a little different,” his suggestion that she talk and “work things out” herself with two burly, armed men, and his warning that “contacting the authorities just makes things worse.”
Cassandra may be a little on edge and may have a chip on her shoulder. But she’s speaking for a lot of people when she snaps “We’ve all got to play by the same rules if this thing is gonna work.”
What she’s talking about is America. What’s she’s is broaching is unequal justice. And what she’s saying to biased, never-touch-my-pickup-truck-paisanos rural law enforcement is loud and clear before she puts Deputy Gus on blast.
“What are you even here for” if it’s not to enforce the law? Because letting those who would do whatever the hell they want as long as they’re willing to intimidate those who aren’t burly and armed and the law does nothing is unacceptable, even if it is commonplace.
In rural America, where the law enforcement is scarce, where everyone knows everyone else and a whole lot of people are trapped in generational bubbles of relationships, grievances and denial, a lot of encounters have a built-in might-makes-me-right “What’re you gonna do about it?”
“God’s Country” is a modern Western working around the “confront those who would take from you” code of the Old West. But where Higgins and Ogbonna take us on this never-less-than-tense journey is startling in its connections, bracing in its grace notes.
Cassandra jogs by herself, sometimes in the dark. Her house has a lot of windows. She enjoys the presence of the deer on her property. She has a dog. We fear for her, first scene to last.
Nobody is all that laudable or even pleasant, but the one character most of us can identify with is Cassandra, who shows a cool head and moments of compassion that rattle even the quickest-to-anger honkytonk loving hunter. No slur is ever uttered, but we feel them in the characters’ chin-jutting posture and testy tone.
And whatever she’s up against isn’t just white hunters avoiding the “n” word, it’s faculty thinking but trying to avoid saying the “token” word instead of “diversity out loud in her presence. She’s got to fight the urge to scream “REDNECKS” as well.
In the end, what “God’s Country” is wrestling with is too big for the movie or the filmmakers’ ambitions. It’s about the reasonable trying to reason with the unreasonable, about race and relative deprivation and the ignorant, angry and armed refusal to accept change. And it’s about neither side recognizing the blind spots in their logic, the biases they’re giving in to and the ugliness they lash out with.
I don’t have to identify who says “Why are you like this?” for you to know who said it, or that any number of characters could also say it with just as much conviction, just as certain they’re on the moral high ground.
Rating: R, for language (profanity)
Cast: Thandiwe Newton, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White,
Credits: Directed by Julian Higgins, scripted by Julian Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna.
Running time: 1:42