A movie about a pair of unlikely friends who team up to infiltrate a cult is always going to be based on two things: friends having chemistry, and the cult being cool. Would you do it Truly You prefer both elements to work for you, but a director can get away with it as long as one of them is strong. Unfortunately for all involved, “God Is a Bullet” has neither.
Nick Cassavetes’ adaptation of the Boston Teran novel of the same name is an ambitious mess that features wild highs (a snake that does meth!) and incredibly dull lows (just about everything else). Overlong and gratuitously violent, the bloated revenge thriller seems obsessed with reminding us of how much evil there is in the world without showing the slightest interest in explaining how it got there.
The one thing everyone in Detective Bob Hightower’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) life can agree on is that he’s not particularly useful. His colleagues at the police department may respect his work ethic, but they ultimately dismiss him as a “desk cowboy” and “seat warmer” who shouldn’t be trusted with any real cases. His ex-wife and new husband ridicule him and largely keep him out of their teenage daughter’s life. The only things going for him are her deep faith in God and his belief that bad things don’t happen in his small Christian town.
The latter belief is shattered – and the former seriously tested – when he visits his daughter Gabi (Chloe Guy) on Christmas morning and finds the house ransacked with several dead bodies left inside. His ex-wife is dead and his daughter is nowhere to be found. Convinced that the absence of a body means Gabi is alive somewhere, he chooses to use whatever police resources she has to find the boys who took her.
His search leads him to Case Hardin (Maika Monroe), a reformed drug addict who has escaped a cult of tattooed child traffickers who have kidnapped Gabi. Her off-the-books testimony confirms that all the evidence left at the house points to them, but Bob’s supervisor, John Lee (Paul Johansson), forbids him from formally investigating the case. When Case shows up at her door and says the only way to find Gabi is to work outside the law, he agrees to turn to her dark side and hit the road with her. Case is as outspoken and cynical as Bob is secretive, but the odd couple decide to bring their daughter back or die trying.
She introduces him to a shady dealer known only as The Ferryman (Jamie Foxx), a powerful vitiligo-ridden broker who hooks the stern cop with the fake ID and tattoos he’ll need to infiltrate a satanic death cult. The meeting gives us our first real look at the major obstacle that could stand in the way of this rescue mission: These motherfuckers are alarming. But while we spend a lot of time exploring the cult’s sadistic tendencies and complicated tattoos, there’s never enough mythology to justify how much time we spend watching Bob and Case’s torturous journey into the bowels of the organization. Evil for evil’s sake only gets you so far.
Despite a premise that could have been yanked from a generic Liam Neeson vehicle, the film keeps slipping into Nicholas Winding Refn wannabe territory and forcing us to sit through endless scenes of sad people chilling in neon bars with evil vibes. Tighter editing that prioritized the rescue plot over meandering character development probably could have turned “God Is a Bullet” into an entertaining aerial film, but Cassavetes’ arthouse ambitions always resurface at inopportune moments. There’s certainly a market for the kind of straight-up thriller that “God Is a Bullet” seems to want to be, but there was absolutely no reason to This story to take two and a half hours.
If it wasn’t clear from the title, much of that runtime fill is devoted to nihilistic screeds about how nothing matters. In the film’s worldview, organized religion and satanic death cults are just two sides of the same coin. They’re both clubs that suckers are tricked into joining as a way to divert their anxiety about death and the endless emptiness that goes with it.
The only thing that Actually it has the kind of power we like to ascribe to deities it is – you guessed it – a bullet. Cormac McCarthy-style poetry may have been the intention, but the script only delivers heavy-handed preaching that keeps us drifting away from what’s left of the story. When the inevitable bloody climax arrives, it’s hard to care about anyone’s fate when the film has spent so much time trying to free us from natural human emotions. Say what you will about formulaic screenwriting tenets, but at least it’s an ethos.
“God Is a Bullet” hits theaters nationwide on Friday, June 23.