Grief is a popular subject in movies and for a number of reasons. It’s a subject that strikes a chord with most every viewer. There are many facets of it that can be explored through cinema. And when done well, it’s depiction in movies can be a cathartic release both for the filmmaker and the audience. Needless to say, there is no shortage of movies that deal with this powerful emotion.
Grief is the central theme for first-time director Julian Higgins in his new film “God’s Country”. This diverting yet overly ambitious thriller hands the too often overlooked Thandiwe Newton a well-deserved and long overdue meaty leading role. She plays a grieving college professor at odds with a couple of backwoods brothers. And while Higgins does a great job building tension between his lead character and two antagonists, it’s often undermined by his attempts to squeeze in every hot-button issue under the sun.
To no surprise Newton is wonderful as Sandra Guidry, a New Orleans transplant now teaching public speaking at a nearby unnamed university. After school, she retreats to her home in a remote snowy canyon outside of town where she sorts through the things of her recently deceased mother. The beautiful rugged isolation is a good place for peace, quiet, and coping with her grief. But she also learns it’s not the safest place to be, especially for a single woman.
One evening Sandra comes home to a red Ford pickup truck parked on her property. There’s no signs of its owner so she leaves a note asking them not to park on her land. Later that evening she finds the truck gone and the crumpled note thrown on the ground.
The next day while chopping wood she notices the same red pickup coming up her driveway. It parks again and out steps the Cody brothers, the older Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and the loose cannon Samuel (Yellowstone’s Jefferson White). Sandra approaches them and asks them to leave much to their chagrin. When she discovers their truck parked a third time she had enough.
Sandra meets with the acting sheriff Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), the only law enforcement officer in a 300-mile jurisdiction. He’s reluctant to get involved saying most disputes are handled between the parties. He does meet with the brothers and tells them to stay off Sandra’s property. But as you can probably guess, this does little to ease the tensions between the two sides and soon Sandra is forced to take matters into her own hands.
Again, all of that makes for a good setup, and Higgins utilizes everything from the performances to his setting to build a tense and at times chilling central conflict. There’s also the undercurrent of grief which both Higgins and Newton navigate with true genuine feeling. The problem comes when the movie wanders from those two narrative strengths.
Rather than exploring these angles deeper, Higgins (who penned the script with Shaye Ogbonna) stuffs the story with a bevy of political issues. Patriarchy, policing, race, gender inequality in the workplace, Hurricane Katrina, animal rights – they all find their way into the narrative, yet none are given the time they need to feel necessary. They’re meant to be contributing to Sandra’s growing frustration and deteriorating state of mind. But their superficial treatment leaves them feeling tacked on rather than important to the story.
Several other things bring the movie down. The revelation of Sandra’s past work in New Orleans gives us one of Newton’s very best scenes, but it also provides an amusing convenience that I never fully bought into. Also, there are some out-of-the-blue supporting character pairings in the last act that are both weird and woefully underdeveloped. These knocks are annoying mainly because they drag down an otherwise gripping thriller. And while grief still gets a reflective and thoughtful treatment, even it feels subverted by too many unnecessary detours.