Only two places can safely be described as the titular God’s Country. The fictional village of Sandford from Hot Fuzz and Hull. Green and pleasant lands in equal measure, although one has a coffee shop that doubles as a record store and the other is filled with killer cults and off-brand supermarkets. It is up to the reader to decide, but at least Julian Higgins makes God’s Country, the Thandiwe Newton-led drama with a flinching action underneath it makes an interesting feature debut. He makes it easy to discern the history of an area through an unnarrated slideshow opening, the flickering’s of the past drawing closer and closer to history as thunder grumbles in the background. His opening and interpretation of land values and ongoing struggles is as intense as it is interesting.
Grief powers the soul through unexpected desires and for God’s Country that serves an intimate purpose. Newton’s portrayal of Sandra Guidry has all the coldness pouring from that state of grief. She handles this leading role well, a nice turn to a gifted actor never quite given the chance to showcase her talents as a broad draw and desperately convincing star. Not for a long while, anyway. 2012 was not exactly The 400 Blows of performance or art. But here Newton is now, with a strong performance in an even stronger realisation from Higgins, whose cold display throughout is held together by nice direction, gorgeous landscapes and a real knack for knowing how to turn a static scene into something isolating, chilling and moving. That triple of emotions serves him well and convincingly so.
Isolation is key to that and to Newton’s lead performance. Where land displays such an important momentum and the introduction of two hunters proves immediately unsettling, the conviction displayed throughout to the bubbling tensions is credible. From there are tense displays, the disconnect between good people and honest people, and the out-of-touch hands of the law meddling in a situation they are refusing to understand from an in-house discipline perspective. Cold moments and colder fields surround these characters, the intensities and anxieties of a small-knit community coming together over lengthy periods, from Christmas to grieving, make for a chased-after, disjointed feeling to those forced into friendship by the distance of neighbours.
Ethical rights and hunting troubles are brought to a head and Newton leads the charge. She has strong sparring partners in the form of Jeremy Bob and Kai Lennox. Jefferson White completes a trifecta of somewhat cliché trios, but as far as the hunters go and the escalation that comes between them, it is necessary. Extremes, a middle ground and a respectful but unhelpful attempt to mould friendship from a dark place, God’s Country at least has that trio working away. Their hunting rifles firing off in the background, cracking the silence, is far more powerful when surrounded by nothing but empty fields, with Newton sprinting through those blank wastes often as the challenges between people on different sides of an ethical and legal battle come to a head. Its pay-off is resoundingly bitter and pulled off well by a director hellbent on showing that everyone has a breaking point.