Louis Malle and his crew's first stop in God’s Country, the little rural town of Glencoe, Minnesota, is a beautiful street-facing garden featuring flowers and hearty vegetables, where an elderly woman is tending to the weeds; as she tells them, "God takes care of the garden, but the devil takes care of my lawn." This leads nicely into Malle's first broad, Herzog-esque reflection on Glencoe: folks are obsessed with mowing their lawns. Malle remarks blandly that perhaps it is "a vestige of the pioneer spirit," though as his focus narrows on the homogeneity of the community, there's something about a dedicated attention to maintaining a certain even sameness to this devotion.
The majority of the film is then dedicated to a number of surprisingly intimate conversations, which is, in the end, what makes this such a devastatingly watchable documentary: our interest in our fellow man, the inevitable response to the Barthesian punctums peppered throughout (the man absently rocking a stroller at the softball match, a furtive look of pleasure from a man just hugged by a cake-layer-dressed bridesmaid at the local bar), but which is most inspired by the candor Malle achieves, immediately reminiscent of Michael Apted's Seven Up series—a comparison all the more relevant when Malle returns to Glencoe six years later to revisit his "friends." Though the camera pans again over stunning landscapes of pastoral beauty and turns a loving eye on a well-appointed trailer and the healthy cheeks of still-unmarried Steve, the people of Glencoe are depressed. The blindsided victims of shifting trade policies and right-wing-snake-oil-salesmen, a number of the farms are on the brink of bankruptcy. As the town lawyer puts it, in the concluding conversation of the film, "Financially, our generation had it a lot better than the generation since then,” words that are allowed to echo for a silent moment—and do so even more now.
Whether there be lessons to learn, there are definitely: a Franju-esque sequence in the nearby Hormel factory; Malle's charming presence as filmmaker and interviewer; those heartbreakingly green fields and big blue skies; Jim and Bev and their bevy of college-bound toddlers; and a 91-year-old woman who declares "I can. I can pickles." God's Country is not to be missed.