Adapted from a Boston Teran novel and making the rather incredulous claim that it’s based on actual events, Nick Cassavetes’ God Is a Bullet is a rather nasty piece of work — a proudly reprehensible, yet plodding exercise in provocation, daring you to be outraged by its puerile worldview. It’s ostensibly about a man of deep faith descending into a seedy and violent underworld to rescue his young daughter, led by the hand of a skittish insider, only for his strongly held religious beliefs to be challenged by the wonton ugliness with which he’s confronted. In the most charitable yet superficial sense, the film resembles the work of Paul Schrader, most specifically 1979’s Hardcore, which is perhaps the most conflicted of the filmmaker’s many riffs on The Searchers (1956). But in its flashy yet empty visuals, its predisposition to wallow in human suffering, and particularly its exploitation and degradation of women, Cassavetes’ film more closely aligns with something like Joel Schumacher’s soulless knock-off 8mm (1999). The suffering is almost certainly the point here — and suffer the viewers shall.
God Is a Bullet opens on Christmas Eve, with affable desk jockey police officer Bob Hightower (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones) calling his fourteen-year-old daughter, Gabi (Chloe Guy), to wish her a merry Christmas. Gabi lives with Bob’s ex-wife and her new husband, and, mere seconds after he hangs up, the house is invaded by the followers of a satanic cult, the Left-Handed Path, fronted by the maniacal, heavily tattooed Cyrus (Karl Glusman). Cyrus and his cronies rape and murder the ex-wife, kill the new husband, and abduct young Gabi with the intention of forcing her to participate in their physically and sexually abusive satanic rituals, before getting her strung out on drugs and pimping her out to truckers. Upon discovering the horrific crime scene the next morning, Bob dedicates his life to tracking down Gabi, spending months running down leads that go nowhere. That all changes when Bob is approached by Case Hardin (Maika Monroe, reuniting with her Watcher co-star, Glusman), a twitchy former cult member turned Left-Handed Path apostate who knows all too well what the cult is up to. She volunteers to help Bob get his daughter back, but she won’t just tell him where Cyrus is (she claims bringing in the police or the FBI will only get the girl killed); rather, she insists that they hit the road together, as a covert tandem, to try and infiltrate the cult. That means that Bob’s going to have to transform himself, inside and out, if he ever wants to see his daughter again.
Bob and Case drive to the middle of the desert to connect with a character called the Ferryman, a transactional figure who provides guns, false documents, and tattoos to the Left-Handed Path. The Ferryman is played by Jamie Foxx in an extended cameo which only further throws off the dramatic balance of the film, and requires the actor to appear in full body tattoos, a prosthetic arm, and makeup meant to simulate vitiligo, truly epitomizing the “too-muchness” that the film is striving for. Over the course of several hours, the Ferryman inks up Bob’s torso and arms, while Case tattoos a spider under his right eye (Monroe, like all the actors in the cult’s orbit, has several facial tattoos), all of which is a mere entrée to the sort of transgression and permanent scarring Bob will endure before he can rescue Gabi. As the pair inch closer to Cyrus, they encounter assorted drug dealers, killers, and all-around gutter trash whose warnings to back off become exponentially less subtle (at one point, a rattlesnake injected with meth is involved). All the while, Bob clings to the flimsy tatters of his belief in God and the doomed hope that he can someday resume his old life with Gabi, praying in vain that neither of them will be too changed by their experiences.
It’s impossible to talk about God Is a Bullet without addressing its violence — not only its pervasiveness, nor how graphicly it’s depicted, but how it overtakes scenes, permeating seemingly innocuous exchanges with its corrosiveness. (The film is being released into theaters sans rating, but it’s inconceivable to think it could secure an R in its current form.) Characters aren’t just shot in this film, they’re reduced to wet chunks of meat by shotguns and large caliber rifles, as limbs and mandibles go flying in a shower of blood. People aren’t merely stabbed; their throats are slit ear to ear, unleashing a cascade of arterial spray. The dominating motif here is violence toward women, extending beyond the subjugation and sexual trafficking of an underage girl — pretty icky stuff and almost entirely extraneous to Cyrus’ ultimate motivations, merely a lazy shorthand to remind us that he’s a bad dude — with the film demonstrating a certain zeal in showing female characters having their noses broken, their eyes blackened through repeated punches, and their brains blown across the backsplash. In an especially upsetting sequence, Cyrus unloads a handgun clip into the face of an unsuspecting female associate simply to make a point, turning the actress’ face into a pocked crater of blood and bone matter before the body even hits the ground. And It’s not just in scenes with the satanic cult, either: actress January Jones appears in a side storyline of questionable relevance only to have her face slammed into the hardwood floor of her home half a dozen times by her husband, punishment for talking back to him. Gorehounds and fans of extreme cinema will, no doubt, find their interests piqued, but even they — over the course of two and half exhausting hours — should question whether the juice was worth the squeeze.
There’s little sense of forward progression, and Cassavetes barely seems able to keep tabs on the plot — even at 155 minutes, the film feels as though large chunks of it have been hacked away, rendering its second half an incomprehensible blur of new locations, confusing timelines, competing interests, and unresolved subplots. This thing is just an endless slog of stakeouts, ponderous conversations about faith (including one that gives the film its title), and cryptic-sounding yet nonsensical, hardboiled dialogue like, “You’re fucking with the black rider, yuppie boy, we aint giving you another pass.” Cassavetes has had a fascinating, if underachieving, career: spurning the option to follow in the scrappy footsteps of his father, pioneering indie director John Cassavetes, to work as a hired hand on studio projects ranging from the true crime nihilism of Alpha Dog to mawkish crowd pleasers like The Notebook. There’s no discernable perspective to his new film, though, beyond “the world is a cruel, unforgiving place filled with evil people.” Thankfully, Cassavetes still knows how to instill a relatively low-budget project like this with a level of slickness and inherent production value; even in the depths of its depravity, there’s an appreciable showmanship to sequences like the build-up to the climactic shoot-out at an abandoned gravel pit, anticipated by Monroe smearing her own blood on her face as warpaint and literal fireworks backlighting our villains to the sounds of Jane’s Addiction’s “Ocean Size” (the soundtrack couldn’t have been cheap, featuring cuts by David Bowie and Bob Dylan, amongst others). But truly, we’re talking polishing a turd here. There aren’t enough Silkwood showers in the world to wash off the stink of a film this loathsome and yet still unfailingly dull.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.
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