Nick Cassavetes’ “God is a Bullet” knows exactly what type of film it desires to be. The director is proudly unapologetic when taking his audience through the picture’s dark and ultra-violent journey, but this isn’t mere exploitation for the sake of schock. Cassavetes’ screenplay (based on the book by Boston Teran) has a subtext that hits as hard as the film’s violence.
Nikolaj Coster-Wadlau is officer Bob Hightower, a sheriff’s deputy who has been riding the desk for too long. After a firecracker opening where a young girl is snatched by a group of Satanists while waiting outside a store for her mother, the film moves to some years later where we meet Bob as he finishes up paperwork while the department Christmas party goes on outside his office.
The same cultists from the beginning scene find their way into the home of Bob’s ex-wife, where they rape and murder the woman, kill her new husband, and take Bob’s only daughter.
Six weeks since the murder/abduction, Bob’s department has bungled the case. After a visit with a former cult member named “Head” Case Hardin (an excellent Maika Monroe), Bob goes rouge, teaming with the young woman to find his daughter.
One should go into this film knowing it is not a generic revenge/save the girl picture. Those looking for violence will certainly find it within the very fabric of “God is a Bullet”, but Cassavetes has always been a smart filmmaker who gets to the gut of his characters’ motivations.
The people who inhabit this film exist (as we all do) in a violent world. The best of us live our lives accordingly, doing what we can to stay above the darkness and keep the uglier parts of humanity away. Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries and no matter how honestly one lives, wickedness and evil will find us.
That present darkness finds its way to Bob, a man of religious conviction. Divorced and unhappy with his job performance, he continues to trust in his faith. After the murder of his wife and abduction of his daughter, Bob is faced with an unshakable truth. Relying on pure faith in any entity (God, The Devil, etc.) to keep one safe is a fallacy.
Nikolaj Coster-Wadlau is perfect in the role. After finding fame in America with his role as Jaimie Lannister, the actor has challenged himself in a number of different personas in films that traverse genres. Coster-Wadlau finds the soul in Bob, using his deep eyes to show a man unfulfilled. When faith fails him, he must walk hand in hand with the violent nature of man.
Bob is a fantastic, multifaceted character and Coster-Waldau meets the challenge with skill.
Karl Glusman does equally well as Cyrus, the cult’s leader. For a character such as this, many actors would chew the scenery. Glusman plays it stone cold, making Cyrus intimidating through quick bursts of violent abuse and frightening stare where he seems to be looking straight into a person’s soul. The performance is chilling while Glusman’s creepy eyes and devilish grin recall Andrew Robinson’s “Scorpio” from Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry”.
The performance of the film belongs to Maika Monroe. Already an impressive actress making her way through genre films such as last year’s “Significant Other” and the Sundance hit “Watcher”, Monroe shows deeper layers as the broken Case Hardin. This is a young woman recovering from drug addiction who has escaped from Cyrus’s sinister grasp. Case is a good soul tarnished by her time in the cult. She hates herself and the ugliness that now colors her view of the world entire. The last thing Case wants to do is to return to Cyrus and his cult, but she identifies with Bob’s pain for deeper reasons that will reveal themselves later in the film.
Monroe is tough and sad and heartbreaking. Beneath the character’s intimidating tattoos and attitude, the actress finds Case’s beating heart and colors her with a tender humanity.
Aaron Zigman’s score gives the film even more of an edge. There are moments where Zigman uses a synth ambience that plays like a lit fuse burning down to an explosion, while the harder guitars blast like shotguns when Bob unleashes the violence within.
The chosen songs are expertly laid out from scene to scene. Many films of this ilk use needle drop choices for no reason beyond sounding cool against the imagery. Music Supervisor Dina Juntila carefully curates each piece to fit the drama, the action, and the souls of the main characters.
The use of Geordie’s “Oh Lord” is a particularly moving choice that compliments the humanity and conflict found in Cassavetes’ screenplay. The song’s melancholic lyrics (about real pain) become a plea of hope for the futures of Bob and Case.
If the “Wild Bunch” inspired finale of violent carnage goes over the top, the film has earned it. Nick Cassavetes uses his running time wisely, building the tone and crafting the violent aura of the characters and the world they live in. The director lets the brutality hit in quick blasts throughout the film, prepping his audience for the finale, where he unleashes a bloody hell.
Through Cassavetes tight hold on the material and his expert understanding of tension and dramatic shock, nothing becomes overly gratuitous. Even the most sadistic of moments have purpose.
This is heavy subject matter, and the film doesn’t shy away from it. Cassavetes wrote a very good screenplay that assures his work walks a perfect balance of exploitation picture and potent character drama. There is a lot going on within the film’s plot and the filmmaker gives every plot point a seamless flow.
“God is a Bullet” is an exciting, hard-hitting tale of vengeance and redemption and the type of balls-out filmmaking modern cinema so desperately needs.
God is a Bullet
Written by Nick Cassavetes (based on the book by Boston Teran)
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
R, 156 Minutes, Patriot Pictures/Itaca Films