When a Satanic cult murders his ex-wife and abducts his teenage daughter, small town detective Bob Hightower (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), more of a housecat than a badass lawman, must team up with Case Hardin (Maika Monroe), an escapee from said Satanic cult, to track them down and get her back. Along the way they acquire a lot of tattoos, kill some folks, and confront the savage void of humanity. So goes Nick Cassavetes’ latest film, God is a Bullet, based on the novel of the same name by mysterious pseudonymous author Boston Teran.
This all sounds well and good and promising. The story aims to tell a Heart of Darkness style story about a man clinging to his faith as he grapples with horrifying realities and stares straight into the face of the deepest, darkest depths of the human soul. Only it’s not. While there are potentially interesting avenues to explore, film never gets into any of them in any meaningful way. More than anything, what we have here is a grimy, violent exploitation movie, though one dressed up and presented as something much more important and prestigious.
When it leans into these elements, it’s reasonably entertaining, in a mean-spirited throwback type of way. But the movie on screen is so convinced of its own substance and weight that it crumbles under a comically overwrought, self-serious countenance. God is a Bullet is the type of film where the characters talk in heightened, stilted, almost noir dialogue, and say nothing in the process. For all the stylized verbal gymnastics, most of what they utter has no meaning. They speak as if their words carry all this power, and deliver lines with the utmost veracity, but most of what comes out of their mouths is empty bluster. (At one point, after a long ramble, Bob looks at Case and basically says, “What the fuck did any of that mean?” And same.)
For a movie about a cult, there’s little actual cult. We hear about the sect’s charismatic leader, Cyrus (Karl Glusman), and the messianic sway he holds over his minions, the followers of the Left-Handed Path, and all the horrible things they do in the name of Satan. But we see none of this for ourselves. For all practical concerns in this movie, they’re little more than a gang. Sure, they have upside-down crosses tattooed on their faces and all manner of elaborate occult body art, but most of the action revolves around a big drug deal and Case and Bob’s attempts to stop it to further their goals.
In many ways, God is a Bullet feels like a remnant of the ‘80s Satanic Panic, made by people who don’t really understand what they’re talking about. Like cults, or Satanism, or even tattoos. In one scene, Jamie Foxx’s Ferryman free-hands like 30 hours-worth of tattoos onto Bob in a single short afternoon sitting. (Sure, movie logic, but Jesus, they could have at least made them look fresh or bloody or authentically new for a second.) And this cult is somehow both completely under the radar but also well-known by seemingly everyone for abducting and murdering children across a relatively small geographical area. Too often, the film doesn’t even follow its own internal logic and the rules of the world it establishes for itself.
This movie also really, really appears to hate women. They exist to be brutalized, beaten and raped, threatened, kidnapped, exploited, and usually murdered in horrific fashion. All with little to no character development. For instance, in a wholly unnecessary side plot, January Jones plays a shrewish, pampered housewife whose primary function is to antagonize her brutish sheriff husband (Paul Johansson) into smacking her around. Or Lena (Virginia Cassavetes), one of Case’s former cult-mates, who does little more than shriek and hiss and get the crap kicked out of her by Cyrus. Like the film at large, it seems like the filmmakers believe they’re saying something about violence against women, controlling, narcissistic men, even perhaps entrenched systems of misogyny, but all it delivers is pretension and lip service.
Okay, enough dumping on this movie. For all the issues, there are things to recommend God is a Bullet. When the movie cuts loose and lets its pulp flag fly, when it wallows in the depravity without trying to gussy it up as something more serious, it’s a wild slice of exploitation cinema. Seriously, they shoot up a rattlesnake with meth, multiple times guys get their legs shot-gunned off at the knee, hell, a dude gets his jaw blown off in graphic detail then tries to put it back on. It’s gooey and nasty and twisted fun. All of which builds to an insanely violent action climax that, while tonally at odds with much of the surrounding movie, is a damn good time. Who knows why the cult has a flame thrower and military-grade arsenal all of a sudden, but I’m glad they do.
Cassavetes can make a nice-looking movie. Everything is well put together, filmed, and constructed. (I can’t help but think of this as a less successful attempt to do what Gone Girl does, which is to dress up inherently pulpy trash as high art, only this misses the mark.) There’s a goofy cast of supporting players chewing the scenery while draped in solid faux-tattoo work, like Ethan Suplee, Brendan Sexton III, Jonathan Tucker, and more. Your ears are even in for a treat with a fantastic, not to mention expensive-sounding score that features Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and similar luminaries. And for all the other problems, length isn’t one of them, which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at 155 minutes. The pace clips right along and, aside from the subplot with Jones et al—which is supposed to set up a big reveal that falls flat and is only a couple of scenes—it rarely drags.
While God is a Bullet has some elements going for it, it’s too much of a mess and a misfire to truly recommend. It too often steers away from what it does best, from the gory violence and exploitation trappings, and veers into self-serious tedium and an inflated air of self-importance. [Grade: C]