January 25, 2022

ShowbuzzDaily Sundance 2022 Reviews: “God’s Country” & “Phoenix Rising”


GOD’S COUNTRY (no distrib):  A deliberative character study that’s also a thriller of sorts, anchored by one of the best performances of Thandiwe Newton’s career.  When two hunters (Joris Jarsky and Yellowstone‘s Jefferson White) park their pick-up on college professor Sandra Guidry’s (Newton) land for their convenience, they’re messing with the wrong person.  Sandra’s mother has just died, and beyond that, she has a lifetime of justified resentment churning to the surface–and a past the two hunters wouldn’t suspect.  That may sound like the kick-off to a revenge fantasy of escalating scale a la John Wick, and the script by director Julian Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna (from a short story by James Lee Burke) doesn’t neglect to have some action beats, but God’s Country is much more concerned with who Sandra is as a person and how she gets to where the story will take her.  Newton’s work is simply outstanding as she details a woman whose anger fights with her weary desire for peace, and who fully understands the war raging within her.  Even though violence eventually comes to God’s Country, it’s approached with resignation, even among some of the people who perform it.  Higgins takes his time to allow Newton to build her character from the inside out, and she seizes the opportunity to create someone complex and original.  Although the film belongs to Newton, the supporting cast brings shading to their roles, including Jarsky, Tanaya Beatty as a young colleague of Sandra’s, and Jeremy Bobb as the town’s acting sheriff.  It’s a virtue of the script that all of those characters get scenes that suggest they could easily have been the subjects of movies themselves.  Gods Country may be too low-key for Taylor Sheridan fans, with visuals as wintry indoors as in the landscapes (photography by Andrew Wheeler), although the material certainly fits in his growing universe.  But one would like to think attention will be paid to its gutty choices and especially its lead performance.

PHOENIX RISING (HBO – March):  Sundance is presenting the first half of what will shortly be a 2-part special on HBO, so this can’t be a summation of the finished product.  The half on view, subtitled “Don’t Fall,” allows Evan Rachel Wood to tell the story of the horribly abusive relationship she had with Marilyn Manson beginning when she was 18 years old (and he was 37), and continuing for several years.  Wood speaks to the camera at length, and also shares selections from journals she wrote at the time.  One of the fascinations of this particular story is that it’s both helped and hurt by Manson’s extravagantly Satanic public image:  as someone in the film notes, he’s been a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” where every clip and photo of him appropriating Nazi and torture imagery is so overtly “on brand” that it seems to put him at an ironic, commercially-minded distance from them, a perfect cover for their underlying truth.  Director Amy Berg’s film isn’t just a vehicle for these horror stories.  It also takes a pointed look at Wood’s childhood (although some of that is left sketchy) and her life as a young Hollywood actress often playing sexualized roles.  The film even notes Manson’s own miserable youth and how the experience of abuse can engender another cycle.  Phoenix Rising shows Wood moving forward, joining with other survivors and advocates to amend California law in order to extend the statute of limitations that prevented her from having Manson prosecuted once she would have been able to do so.  For the most part, Berg does a lucid, gripping job of presenting the information Wood provides and keeping the timeframes straight.  One wonders, though, whether the material needed the visual gilding of illustrations and animations in faux-Victorian style (hearkening back to Manson’s initial luring of Wood through a promised project about Lewis Carroll and “Alice In Wonderland”), as when Wood’s recollection of being sexually assaulted on camera during a Manson music video is visualized with a monster’s tentacle penetrating “Alice’s” mouth.  Phoenix Rising isn’t easy to watch, but those who handle its tough material will feel the need to see the rest of the story, which will apparently widen the scope of the project to include other survivors.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."