Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) stands up to two hunters in "God's Country." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- God's Country, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, has the potential to be a poignant slow burn thriller. Instead of building to a head, the film's battle of wits becomes obviously futile early enough that reaching the inevitable conclusion is frustrating.
Sandra Guidry (Thandiwe Newton) lives alone in Montana since her mother recently died. When two hunters (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) park their truck and trespass on her property, she leaves a note asking them to park somewhere else. They do not respect her wishes.
Next time, Sandra takes matters into her own hands and tows their truck herself. That night, they shoot an arrow into her door. As the threats increase, Sandra involves the acting Sheriff Gus (Jeremy Bobb). Gus advises Sandra that out in the country, it's better to let things go or you'll make them worse.
Unfortunately, Gus proves his own self-fulfilling prophecy correct when he proceeds to ask the men to stay off Sandra's land at her request. When Gus and Sandra suddenly find themselves outnumbered, it suggests how quickly tensions can escalate.
God's Country never reaches that early peak again. Instead, it settles back down to characters trading threats back and forth. Julian Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna's script gives the men their own injustice they've suffered, but they're taking it out on people completely unrelated to their issues.
That's terrifyingly accurate. The impotence of the system to address injustice exposes more innocent victims to violence when the wronged parties lash out at whoever is nearby. Sandra had relocated to Montana from New Orleans, but she discovers she's only traded one hypocrisy for another.
Sandra makes a valid point when Gus warns her that contacting the authorities only makes things worse. "What is the point of you?" she asks. If there's no system for resolving conflicts, are people supposed to just decide how much oppression to endure?
Sandra does make the effort to connect with the hunters. One is more reasonable than the other, but neither will respect her wishes.
Everywhere Sandra turns, people pay lip service to hearing her but end up justifying doing whatever they want. Her university is replacing the outgoing dean and said all the right things when Sandra suggested considering candidates of color.
When Sandra calls people out on lacking follow through, they get indignant. Sandra may vocalize a lot of things the audience agrees with, but it doesn't make compelling drama.
In fact, God's Country feels rather hopeless because it proves Gus right. Sandra stands up for her values and only gets hurt more. Do we need a movie to confirm this?
Nihilism can be effective cinema but God's Country lacks the visceral thrills of a Natural Born Killers or Requiem for a Dream. God's Country makes a convincing case that things really are that bad in the world, but not a case for watching another two hours of it.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.