Revenge thrillers are most impactful when they are concise and intense. Unfortunately, this is not the case with writer-director Nick Cassavetes’ latest film, his first since 2014’s The Other Woman. Based on the well-received 1999 novel by Boston Teran, God Is a Bullet wastes its thought-provoking premise with an excessively long running time (155 minutes, and you feel every minute) and gratuitous violence that gives a cartoonish quality to a story that aims for gritty realism. Despite the talented cast’s dedication to their roles, the film ends up feeling like a pretentious version of a Charles Bronson action film from the ’80s.
In fact, Bronson himself would have been ideal for the role of Detective Bob Hightower (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), whose ex-wife and her new husband are brutally murdered by members of a cult that seems to have drawn inspiration from The Hills Have Eyes. In an early scene that attempts to surpass the similar sequence in Death Wish in terms of brutality, and succeeds all too well, the deranged and heavily tattooed psychopaths also abduct Hightower’s teenage daughter (Chloe Guy).
Stymied in his investigation of the murders and the search for his daughter by his supervisor John Lee (Paul Johansson), who has hidden reasons revealed later in the story, Hightower finds an unlikely ally in reformed junkie Case (Maika Monroe), a former member of the cult who managed to escape its fanatical leader Cyrus (convincingly portrayed by Karl Glusman). With Case’s help and a few added tattoos to enhance his appearance (albeit discreetly on his face to preserve the actor’s leading-man looks), Hightower infiltrates the cult, which also includes the enigmatic and stoic figure known as “The Ferryman” (Jamie Foxx, relying on his imposing physical presence to compensate for limited screen time).
The tough-as-nails Case and the morally upright Hightower make for an odd pairing as they strive to uncover the cult’s actions regarding his daughter. At one point, Case tells him, “Forget it, Bob, you’re strictly the missionary position,” and she’s not referring to sex. She also displays the kind of philosophical attitude commonly found in poorly written movies when she holds up a bullet and declares, “This is the ultimate life form, the great equalizer. This is God, coyote.”
Hightower himself is no stranger to resilience. Throughout his trials, he stitches up a severe stab wound with a stapler, survives a rattlesnake bite, and even endures being set on fire (though not all at once). Naturally, the snake had reason to be angry, considering that cult leader Cyrus had injected it with drugs and swung it around like a lasso.
One wouldn’t expect a film like this to be refined, but Cassavetes seems determined to thrust excessive violence in our faces, almost as if he wants to punish the audience. The cult members casually murder outsiders and each other with the abandon one would anticipate in a snuff film, and a single bullet to a woman’s face is deemed insufficient when a dozen can be fired instead. Rather than appearing as a realistic portrayal of the cult’s ultra-violent anarchy, this literal overkill comes across as desperate attempts at creating cinematic shock value.
The dialogue doesn’t fare any better. When one villain gleefully informs a potential victim, “You’re all out of bullets, sweetheart,” even the most inexperienced film critic can predict what happens next. Additionally, while it likely stems from the source material, a convoluted subplot involving John Lee’s unfaithful wife (January Jones, striving for femme fatale status) adds little to thenarrative.