God’s Country is edited together as something of a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the American spirit in 1979.
God’s Country is edited together as something of a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the American spirit in 1979. As a whole, it is a profound meditation on place and identity. Yet taken on a scene-by-scene basis, it looks more like the home movies everyone’s mom used to store in a box deep in the back of some closet. Director Louis Malle allowed his curiosity to take him to Glencoe, Minnesota, where he followed several townspeople around, capturing their daily lives.
From there, God’s Country traces Glencoites going about their business. It shows lawn maintenance, industrial-level farming, family meals, the local acting troupe, a wedding and a retirement home. The most memorable characters are a 30-something bachelor who makes his living artificially-inseminating dairy cows, a free spirited post-flower child woman and an open-minded WWII veteran whose son famously served prison time for burning draft cards in the ‘60s. There is also an idealistic young farmer and father of three whose connection to the land is visceral, an empty-nester playwright and an octogenarian woman planting carrots.
The film is mostly pathos. Malle is a genuine and kind filmmaker who truly sets out to compose a portrait of everyday life in a forgotten corner of a flyover state. Malle, of course, is also a talented and accomplished director, so the film is successful in achieving his goals. God’s Country is funny, lively and nearly immediately engrossing. The jokes about lawn mowing and the sheer density of churches in Glencoe still work today and the scenes feel as if they are capturing something indelibly American in an enduring way. This is a film for anyone interested in material culture, Americana, the counter-culture in a socially conservative area or Minnesota accents.
Nearly 80 percent of the way through the film, Malle shocks the audience. God’s Country leaps forward in time, from 1979 to 1985. Malle and his curious camera make a prodigal return to Glencoe six years later. This chronological leap is not signaled or foreshadowed, taking a first-time viewer totally unaware.
Rather than attempting to re-chronicle daily life in Minnesota on his return trip, Malle works to check up on some of the characters from his 1979 visit. The cow inseminator is still a happy bachelor, the octogenarian gardener is now in her nineties and still maintaining her own plot of vegetables and flowers. The playwright has cranked out more than a dozen new scripts. It seems, then, that little has changed.
But anyone familiar with U.S. history knows that this cannot be—the early ‘80s were a time of economic recession, high inflation and rabid union-busting. The first Reagan term corresponded to the period when the industrial belt quickened its rapid disintegration into the rust belt. Glencoe is not Youngstown, Ohio, so the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs was less direct in devastating the town. For that, go watch Tony Buba. But in Glencoe, the ‘80s decay is still there. The farms shown in 1979, both the enormous industrial farm and the smaller one worked by the idealistic father of three, are suffering.
All the farms in rural Minnesota are being crunched and Glencoe is rotting from the tilled fields inwards. People are either leaving or staying and growing increasingly depressed. They curse the president they voted for and mutter to themselves about the twisted new state of things. The humble WWII veteran whose son committed civil disobedience against Vietnam is given the final haunting words: he fears the future of his country because what he is seeing enacted in society today is not the celebrated entrepreneurial spirit of classic U.S. capitalism but rather an insatiable and destructive greed. Watching from 2017, that particular Glencoite seems a prophet.