After his wife is savagely murdered and his daughter is kidnapped, a sheriff's deputy quits his job and seeks out an insidious cult believed to responsible for the crimes. That's the gist of the bleak and violent new action thriller "God Is a Bullet" from writer-director Nick Cassavetes. It's his first film since the 2014 rom-com misfire "The Other Woman." Trust me, this is no warm and sudsy romantic comedy.
Inspired by true events and based on Boston Teran's bestselling 1999 novel of the same name, "God Is a Bullet" features a story that Cassavetes has wanted to tell for nearly 20 years. And there's nothing pretty about it. Cassavetes works overtime in making this as grim and unpleasant as possible. Mission accomplished. "God Is a Bullet" is hopelessly dark and dour -- a seemingly endless two hour 35 minute malaise of misery that eventually wears you down and even worse tests your patience.
Among the film's many problems are the narrative shortcuts that undermine so much of the storytelling. It's hard to imagine a 155-minute movie about a dad searching for his daughter taking many shortcuts but there are plenty of examples. They end up leaving the ghastly world we spend so much time in feeling remarkably shallow. Sure, the deviants within it make us squirm with their head-to-toe tattoos and insatiable bloodlust. But (with maybe one lone exception) they're all cut out the exact same mold.
And then you have the meat of the story itself. Cassavetes takes the framework of a simple revenge thriller and attempts to make it more layered than it actually is. This mostly comes through a couple of second half twists. But they're underdeveloped to the point that they leave far more questions than answers. And they end up highlighting just how clunky and unsure of itself the movie seems to be. None of the twists feels natural to the story. They feel thrown in and tacked on rather than organic.
About the story, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Bob Hightower, a police officer in Mint County, Calif. Bob enjoys living in his "small Christian community" and has hopes of being promoted to detective despite the lack of support from his chief, Sgt. John Lee Bacon (Paul Johansson). But his good life is shattered after members of a maniacal cult called "Followers of the Left-Handed Path" brutally murder his ex-wife and her husband and abduct his 14-year-old daughter Gabi (Chloe Guy).
The police aren't much help, but Bob finds an unexpected ally in Case (Maika Monroe) who was kidnapped by the same cult when she was only 11. She was abused, raised and indoctrinated by the group and its sadistic leader, Cyrus (Karl Glusman). He's the vile sort and the film goes out of its way to show it. But his one-dimensional evil bend results in a villain who's too over-the-top and even cartoonish at times.
The crass and no-nonsense Case agrees to help Bob find his daughter all while hiding her own very personal motivations. She starts by taking him to a guy with connections called The Ferryman (Jamie Foxx in a truly wacky role) who tattoos much of Bob's body so that he will blend in (which is really funny considering Bob spends most of the movie with them covered under a long-sleeve shirt). The unlikely duo then sink deep into the mire of the film's cult subculture where they stay for what seems like an eternity.
Later a few other characters are introduced in an attempt at adding a new dimension to the story. But it only succeeds in cluttering up the film's final hour by adding in a thinly conceived shoehorned angle that lacks a rewarding conclusion.
The same could be said for Bob's overall arc. Coster-Waldau is a terrific actor and does his very best playing the film's protagonist. He gives a sturdy performance that takes the character to some pretty horrifying depths. But Bob never fully comes together in a satisfying way. And there's hardly any meaningful internal conflict in his descent from honest God-fearing cop to hardened revenge-filled killer. He just moves from point to point in his journey, following Case wherever she leads him.
"God Is a Bullet" has a potentially interesting idea, but nearly everything that springs from it falls short. From the supposedly super-secret underworld where everyone seems to live in the wide open to the random moments of oddly on-the-nose philosophizing. Even the sudden bursts of extreme violence can't bring an infusion of much needed energy. Altogether it feels like a portrait that's only half painted; a model that's missing half of its pieces. And it's that lack of depth and detail that makes it all a really tough sell.