“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 surprise. 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 matter (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 Violation and execute Hightower’s ex-wife, finish 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 matter—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 action 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.