“God Is a Bullet” is like a mallet to the back of the head. It’s never subtle, demanding that you know its presence while knocking the taste out of your mouth (none of this, unfortunately, can be counted as a compliment). The film attempts to marry the movements common to grisly road movies and grimy action thrillers while aiming to shake the religious fiber of its morally upright protagonist, Bob Hightower (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a local sheriff’s deputy searching for his kidnapped daughter, Gabi (Chloe Guy). There are, to be sure, moments of shock. But they offer very little awe.
The opening is a broken canvas of dispersed events: In one instance, a girl with a pink balloon, awaiting her mother outside a supermarket, is snatched by a group of Satanists in a black van. She will grow into Case (Maika Monroe), a blond, tattooed, heroin-addled acolyte of cult leader Cyrus (Karl Glusman). We then jump to some unknowable time after, during Christmas, where, in a ghastly scene akin to “A Clockwork Orange,” this same cadre of goons rape and murder Hightower’s ex-wife, kill her husband, and flee with his daughter. Every shot from a double-barrel shotgun that sends Hightower’s ex-wife’s limp body thudding into a pool is more garish than the last and is equally as incomprehensible in its tenor as the tawdry plot of the movie.
The first few minutes, a hopeless, slap-dash attempt to transport viewers to the heart of this gruesome movie, signal a strained desire by writer/director Nick Cassavetes to pull tension from the collision of crushing realism and a knowing formalism.
The film’s discordant tones begin when the naive Bob recruits the worldly Case—she recently left the group and is presently in rehab—to track Cyrus’ gang. They hit the road in a pickup truck with a cache of guns, arriving at a desert house belonging to the Ferryman (Jamie Foxx), a tattoo artist with an amputated hand and the kind of white splotches on his face common to those with vitiligo. The makeup used for Foxx simply looks crummy. The same goes for the tattoos on all the characters, which are so blackened and well-defined you’re left wondering if these marauders get touched up every couple of months. Those are some smaller swings for authenticity that ultimately feel like glaring affections.
To a point, Cassavetes wants you to know you’re watching a movie. He inserts explicit photography featuring bloody Satanic sacrifices, which remind viewers that the film is adapted from Boston Teran’s same-title book but not based on true events. He and editor Bella Erikson also slow fight scenes, tinged by Mozart, to break the spell of this naturalistic road movie. Over-the-top but committed performances by Glusman, for instance, and a host of gang members, also push the boundaries of belief.
You can nearly sense how “God Is a Bullet” could be an intriguing study of religious faith amid an unspeakably terrible world. But Cassavetes’ distended script interrupts the rhythm and pace of his storytelling. There’s an entire subplot involving January Jones as the trophy wife of the town’s sheriff (Paul Johansson) that could be entirely excised, and you wouldn’t miss a thing. The backgrounding of Cyrus also begs to be trimmed.
In trying to intertwine the visual feel of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and the first season of “True Detective,” the film loses focus. Its violence against women, while certainly an intended critique of this barren, apathetic desert landscape, succumbs to gratuitousness. Cassavetes’ artsy sheen doesn’t help matters either. Instead, the operatic, final confrontation between Bob, Case, and Cyrus is brutalist miserablism disguised as elevated style.
The only standout figure among the bunch is Monroe, playing Case. The actress previously stunned in Chloe Okuno’s surveillance thriller “Watcher,” and it’s a wonder to see her attempt a vastly different character here, moving from the secluded housewife in a strange land to this free-spirited alpha woman. Monroe’s every head tilt, her grounded deliveries, and broad physicality achieve the exact balance between sophistication, brokenness, and deadliness Cassavetes desperately wants.
Monroe is ultimately entrusted with landing the film’s final false note, a bid for normalcy that appears to counter her character’s deepest desires. It’s a groan-inducing end whose neatness leaves one wanting more than the superficiality Cassavetes provides. If God is a bullet, it can’t come fast enough.
Now playing in theaters.
God Is a Bullet (2023)
Nikolaj Coster-Waldauas Bob Hightower
Maika Monroeas Case Hardin
Jamie Foxxas The Ferryman
January Jonesas Maureen Bacon
Ethan Supleeas Gutter
Karl Glusmanas Cyrus
Paul Johanssonas John Lee Bacon
Brendan Sexton IIIas Granny Boy
Jonathan Tuckeras Errol Grey
David Thorntonas Arthur Naci
- Nick Cassavetes
- Boston Teran
- Nick Cassavetes
- Kenji Katori
- Bella Erikson
- Aaron Zigman