Female protagonists were definitely centered at this year’s Sundance. It felt like every other film I saw gave a platform to a phenomenal actress. That was certainly the case for this trio of thrillers from the Premieres section, all three reminders of how incredible Thandiwe Newton, Aubrey Plaza, and Rebecca Hall can be with the right material. It also doesn’t feel coincidental that they are all playing women who are just tired, ready to take back what so many men have tried to steal forever. Artists reflect the anxiety and concerns of the world around them and there’s a sense at Sundance this year that it’s time to fight back, time to take a stand, and time to stop putting up with inequality. Even if that means violence.
That’s certainly how Sandra (Newton) feels in the excellent “God’s Country,” one of this Sundance’s best films. She’s exhausted at the systems that have failed around her. And she knows a thing or two about systems, having been both a New Orleans police officer and now a professor at a college in a very different climate, a cold, mountainous region. Sandra moved there with her mother after Hurricane Katrina, and mom has just passed away as the film opens, dropping Sandra into an even darker place in which she has no one to consider but herself. When two hunters choose to park on her property, she politely asks them not to do so. After they refuse, a series of escalating aggressions turn “God’s Country” into a slow-motion crash. Unlike some thrillers, there’s never really a sense that Julian Higgins’ debut could end with reconciliation. It feels like that’s harder than ever in 2022, maybe even impossible.
Newton embodies the slow-burn nature of the film in her performance, turning Sandra into a warrior but also conveying deep sadness and vulnerability. She carries all of it in her body language, clenched and tight in every interaction in a way that feels completely genuine. She deals with racism and sexism on such a daily basis that it’s seeped into her soul. And yet Newton never succumbs to making Sandra feel like a traditional movie victim who's had enough. This isn’t a vengeance thriller as much as a commentary on how these broken structures and gender/racial biases are going to eventually destroy us. At one point, to defuse a situation, Sandra says, “We all gotta play by the same rules if this is gonna work.” We aren’t playing by the same rules. We all know that. And “God’s Country” is very smart in the way it embeds this inequity in a thriller structure.
It’s also quite simply one of the best-looking films of Sundance 2022. Higgins has the eye of a veteran, turning the open spaces of Sandra’s life into something that still feels threatening. Sundance is often filled with debut directorial turns that struggle in terms of camera placement, production design, use of space—the elements that often come with experience—but “God’s Country” has none of that. It’s a film that understands both form and content, merging the two in a story that feels less like a piece of suspenseful entertainment and more like a warning.
There’s a similar bone-deep frustration embedded in John Patton Ford’s “Emily the Criminal,” another thriller about a woman pushed into behavior she never could have imagined she would partake in. Less successful overall, it’s still worth seeing because of the driven performance from Aubrey Plaza, who has never been better. If anything, the film sometimes struggles to match what she’s giving it. She sometimes seems more ready to jump into the deep end regarding the horrors of the gig economy and the ruthlessness of her character than the film around her. It’s a force of nature performance in a movie that sometimes feels a little too breezy.
Emily has thousands of dollars of student debt, a minor criminal record, and a series of mediocre jobs. When one of her colleagues tells her she could earn $200 in an hour if she texts a random phone number, she takes the opportunity, meeting a petty criminal named Youcef (a charismatic Theo Rossi). He’s the middleman for a credit card fraud operation, and Emily is going to be one of the couriers. She takes a stolen number, buys something with it, returns the product, and gets paid for her trouble. It’s pretty easy, actually—depressingly so for anyone who’s ever suffered credit card fraud themselves. However, Youcef and Emily start to take bigger risks as he basically trains her in his job, and she becomes more of a minor player in this new kind of illegal gig economy and a key figure in a growing criminal underworld.
At first, “Emily the Criminal” seems like a classic story of a good person who gets in over her head in rising waters, but it’s not exactly that movie. Every time Emily faces a threat, Plaza smartly hesitates to show the severity of the situation, and then pushes Emily through it. She’s a model of the modern gig worker, someone who is constantly having to think on the fly, and make decisions reactively to meet the demands of the job. It’s a fearless performance and I wished that the world around Emily felt a little richer and a little more dangerous to match it, but Emily is going to be one of the most unforgettable characters of the year. I kind of can’t wait for people to meet her.
I also can’t wait for people to see the bonkers final act of Andrew Semans’ “Resurrection,” featuring another performance that should remind us that Rebecca Hall is one of our best working actresses, and a chilling one from Tim Roth that reasserts the incredible run he has been on with films like “Sundown,” “Bergman’s Island,” and now this—he’s making such great decisions with his career. Hall gives a physical, intense performance in Semans’ film, which narratively collapses at times under the weight of unrealistic behavior and overly stylized filmmaking, but never loses its emotional intensity because of Hall and Roth. It may not all add up, but neither does trauma—it warps reality, redefining who we are and what’s possible as it comes back to life and tries to kill us.
Hall plays Margaret, a successful woman who may be a bit overprotective of her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), but there’s a reason for that. When Margaret glimpses a face from her past in David (Roth), her entire body reacts. She shakes. She runs. She panics. And then she sees him again. And again. In a riveting centerpiece monologue, she reveals the trauma that David caused in her, and it becomes clear that this resurrected monster will have to be killed once and for all.
Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield works with Semans to craft a world that feels terrifyingly cold. It’s a film with the clean lines of offices and a striking lack of color throughout its design. Everything feels threatening, a sense that’s amplified by a pulsing score from Jim Williams. Semans telegraphs how much he wants viewers to be uncomfortable almost to a fault—the style sometimes overwhelms the realism even in the early chapters when it feels like the film needs to be grounding itself for the insanity to come in the final scenes. And I do mean insanity. I love a film that doesn’t just threaten to go off the rails but flies off them and “Resurrection” certainly does that. I hope whoever picks it up commits to a theatrical because this should be experienced with a screaming crowd.