Best thing you’ll see all week: God’s Country

, | Movie reviews

It’s no revelation that some old timey songs can have a sinister subtext. One of my many issues with Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, a predictable and ultimately pedestrian mystery, is how coy she seems to think she’s being with her old timey public-domain soundtrack. For instance, the movie opens with the music to “Where or When”, an innocuous little Rodgers and Hart ditty about deja vu. The main characters are literally driving in a circle. Peggy Lee begins singing eventually: 

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can’t remember where or when

Then an earthquake cuts her off. What could it mean?

Don’t worry, it probably means exactly what you’d guess, darling! The warblingly literal Peggy Lee version is entirely appropriate for Wilde’s movie. It’s certainly better than the version from the 1939 film adaptation of Babes in Arms, the musical for which “Where and When” was written. In the Babes in Arms movie, they barely even let Judy Garland sing!

Which brings me to a movie called God’s Country, a slow burn thriller most notable for the things it doesn’t do. The scene is a Christmas party for the faculty at a small college in rural Montana. Thandie Newton plays a creative writing professor who has begrudgingly come to the party. She wears a stunning black dress.

“Is it too much?” she asks a colleague, fussing with the strap. She’s in a room full of extras on an indie film shot in rural Montana. Of course it’s too much. She’s Thandie Newton. 

I first really noticed Newton in Gridlock’d, a movie about her absence. She plays an unlikely heroin addict alongside Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth, who play more likely heroine addicts. Early in the movie, she overdoses, leaving the rest of the movie to play out in her shadow as the two men who loved her (not in that way) struggle to recover and maybe even rethink how they live their lives. Shenanigans ensue. Gridlock’d is mostly about the considerable chemistry between Shakur and Roth, but it’s nevertheless charged by Newton’s presence, and then her absence. 

Since then, she has been a commanding presence in nearly everything she’s done. Even as I’ve lost interest in Westworld’s byzantine made-for-TV cyberpunkery, I’ve occasionally dropped in to check up on her. She seems as bored as ever. You and me both, Thandie. You and me both.

So I was a bit taken aback that she plods through God’s Country with that same stately weariness. As if she’s had enough. Tired, resigned, perhaps even uninterested? Does she even have the energy to make it to the next scene? Which makes sense when you’re pronouncing yet another inscrutable Westworld plot twist, but why bring that quality to what seems to be a garden-variety revenge thriller? Surely there’s been a mistake. 

The answer will be forthcoming when the movie pivots — maybe even lurches — into a new direction during a conversation at the Christmas party. Two people who barely know each other, but who were just at loggerheads during a crisis, are at the same party. They have no one else to talk to, so why not give it another shot? Why not see if there’s some rapport to be managed, some connection, now that they know a little more about each other, now that they’ve emerged from their earlier crisis?

Director Julian Higgins shoots the scene as if it were a romance. Opposite Thandie Newton is a fascinating actor named Jeremy Bobb. He plays the part as if he were as unassuming as his name, like a Chris Farley drained of energy after starving himself of carbs for six months. His voice is thick with scotch, his character motivation insipid, his charm painfully unconfident, his comments inane (“There’s a lot of history down there,” he offers when she says she’s from the South). But now, at least, he understands her. Now they share something, something no one else can understand, and he says as much. He is now the male lead of the movie, having peirced the veil of her backstory.

This is how you film two people falling in love, having retreated into an empty room to talk in the rustic glow of Christmas lights against bare wood, Lena Horne softly crooning “Where or When” from a record player in the next room while they share, reminisce, let down their guards, reveal themselves.  Horne’s voice is ethereal, otherworldly, as if she’s untangling something cosmic and ineluctable, building to an elation bordering confusion. The strings implore, the muted horns cry, her voice soars, they understand each other and fall in love.

Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again
And so it seems that we have met before
And laughed before and loved before
But who knows where or when?

But that’s not what happens because God’s Country is about characters held prisoner to their own assumptions, for whom those lyrics mean completely different things. When Jeremy Bobb’s character, an overwhelmed and insecure small town deputy, pronounces his profound insight, it’s not even a question. He knows. He knows her. He has found the secret they share.

“That’s the worst you can think of?” she asks. 

Except it’s not a question. It’s an observation about him. That is the worst he can think of. And again with the tiredness. Why is Thandie Newton playing this romantic scene as if she were an exasperated schoolteacher who knows her student didn’t read the assignment? What test has Jeremy Bobb’s ill-equipped but well-intentioned character failed?

God’s Country is about to become a movie you didn’t know you were watching. Her statement — “That’s the worst you can think of?” — is the fulcrum of this movie in which we’re all prisoners of our assumptions. Thandie Newton and Jeremy Bobb’s tragically awkward two-step at the Christmas party is where Higgins finally reveals the stakes, and if you’re listening to the lyrics of “Where and When”, you should be horrified at the hopelessness, the fatalism.

On a strictly personal note, and by way of explaining why this might seem like a weird way to write about a movie, I resonated with Jeremy Bobb’s character in that scene. I’m probably about 70% more progressive than the average old white guy, and lord knows, I try to be aware of privilege and power and race and gender and sexual orientation and all sorts of other things that God’s Country isn’t interested in discussing, because it’s busy telling a story about characters instead of ideas. But what I love about that scene of two people trying to connect is how they’re each in a different scene, and one of them is clueless because it’s never happened to him. He doesn’t know any better. He can’t know any better. As God’s Country notes from a church pew, “You’re just whatever happened before you.”

But the other person is just so tired of it all and…well, suffice it to say Jeremy Bobb’s small town deputy is left holding a glass of scotch with no one to talk to at the Christmas party. The conversation will weigh especially heavy on him in the coming days.

But I wonder how many times I’ve been in that situation, certain that I’ve understood another person’s experience no matter how different it might be from my own, no matter how far removed that person’s life might be from mine, no matter how fortunate and, yes, privileged my own life has been. Because arguably more important than trying to understand someone is conceding that maybe you can’t understand her. It’s not malice and it doesn’t need the prick of concepts like racism or mysogyny. It’s the human condition that our experiences divide us. It’s inherent to diversity.

God’s Country is based on a miserable little James Lee Burke short story. You can read it here. I’ll wait. Julian Higgins adapted it into a short film starring the wonderful Raymond Barry (you may not know who he is, but trust me: you know who he is) as a retired professor who gets involved in a contretemps with some local hunters. It’s the stuff of minor civil disagreements that might explode into full-blown neighborly grudges held for years on end. It could lead to sullen glares, unsent Christmas cards, or even a punch-up at a local bar on a Friday night. Or, if you’re in a story by a guy who wrote a bunch of detective potboilers, an opportunity for some men to wave their dicks around at each other.

“I heard about you,” one of the antagonsists had said to Newton. He didn’t elaborate because he wasn’t talking to the audience, so we don’t know what he heard and we never find out. But he was talking to a black woman who’s moved into a snowy white community, so the line has a certain kind of weight. When James Lee Burke wrote it in his dingy yarn about male pride, it was a badge of honor. Here, adapted by Higgins into a feature-length film starring Thandie Newton instead of Raymond Barry, it’s a threat, and perhaps even racially charged. Which, again, isn’t something God’s Country is interersted in, even if the characters are who they are for a reason. “There’s a lot of history down there” has its work cut out for it. 

I’m not sure I would outright recommend God’s Country, at least not without having a conversation first. It can be a deeply frustrating, and therefore deeply unsatisfying movie, which is the opposite of how revenge thrillers are supposed to work. Instead, Julian Higgins levels a gaze at us, chugs a beer, and leaves dangling the unasked but answered question, “What did you think was going to happen?” All that’s missing is a satisfied belch.

It’s a vulgar finale, and I don’t generally care for characters arbitrarily breaking fourth walls. I’m still puzzled how I was supposed to respond to Leonardo Di Caprio’s searching look at the end of The Revenant. Conversely, I just saw Catherine Called Birdy, a totes adorbs historical coming-of-age story powered by Bella Ramsey’s inestimable charm, and it ends with exactly the smile and wink I needed. But this? Do we really deserve this? I suppose if I were paying attention during the Lena Horne song, if I listened more closely to Thandie Newton’s lecture in an early scene, if I fully appreciated Higgins’ symbolic touches, I’ve always known this was where we would end up.

“That’s the worst you can think of?” she asks me as the song unspools its platitudes and I notice my glass is empty.

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