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"God's Country" reviewed by Dan Webster

Movies work as well as they do by rousing our emotions. They can make us laugh, cry, cringe – both in fear and embarrassment – and sometimes they can even make us feel as if we’re burning with suppressed rage.

Rage, in fact, traditionally has been one of the most effective ways that movies have of connecting the characters we watch with the feelings that many, if not most of us, work hard to contain – or at least understand.

For example, in John Ford’s 1956 Western “The Searchers,” which was adapted from the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, John Wayne’s character – Ethan Edwards – is a mass of simmering rage. A Civil War veteran, who fought on the losing side, Ethan returns to his West Texas home only to experience the loss of his brother’s family to a band of marauding Comanches.

The rest of the film involves his years-long search for his two surviving nieces, one of whom is eventually found dead while the other (played by Natalie Wood) is taken captive and – to Ethan’s way of thinking – made unfit for living in his (read: white) society. The ongoing tension of “The Searchers” is whether Ethan will save the girl – or kill her – his rage is that great.

That same kind of seething emotion sits at the heart of “God’s Country,” a film directed and co-written (with Shaye Ogbonna) and adapted from a short story by the novelist James Lee Burke. “God’s Country” stars the New Zealand-born actress Thandiwe Newton as Sandra Guidry, a professor working at a rural Montana university.

Sandra has several things going on at once. Obviously self-sufficient, capable of caring for her remote mountain cabin, she is not without concerns. For one thing, her mother has recently died after what appears a long illness.

For another, she is one of two women in her university department and the only faculty member of color. This contributes twice over to the feeling that whatever she has to say may be listened to but doesn’t count for much.

Most important, though, she one day discovers a red truck parked on her property. And this she takes as a challenge, not just to her rights as a property owner but to her sense of personal security. Even so, she merely writes a polite but pointed note to the truck’s owner reflecting her displeasure.

When that doesn’t work, a personal confrontation between her and two brothers, Nathan and Samuel (played by Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) begins courteously enough but devolves when Samuel acts threateningly. Matters escalate further when, upon again seeing the truck, she tows it away.

Sandra goes to the local sheriff, but the deputy she meets (played by Jeremy Bobb) makes things only worse when he attempts to find Samuel and is faced down by a group of chainsaw-wielding masked guys – a heated situation that Sandra is able, though barely, to de-escalate.

The plot path, though, is set. So when Sandra feels slighted at a faculty meeting, and when she oversteps her authority involving a young graduate assistant (played by Tanaya Beatty), the one resulting in a shouting match and the other with Sandra feeling embarrassed at having betrayed a confidence, circumstances progress to a climax that comes with shattering suddenness.

Yet other than what I’ve already mentioned, plus the fact that Sandra once served as a New Orleans police officer, Higgins and Ogbonna don’t provide any specific reasons for the actions that she takes. And they don’t shy away from making it clear that she has, for whatever reason, reached a point where she is not just unafraid to provoke her erstwhile foes – she can’t help but do so.

So while Higgins ably uses the talents of cinematographer Andrew Wheeler to capture the natural beauty of the mountains around Livingston, Montana, and while he expertly takes an unhurried approach to individual moments – including long pauses that linger particularly on Newton’s photogenic face – he isn’t able to clue us in on what is going on in his characters’ interior lives.

And all emotions, especially the seemingly inscrutable ones, deserve more of an explanation than what “God’s Country” provides. Even John Ford, for all his faults, understood that.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.