Editor’s Note: This originally ran as part of our SXSW 2012 coverage, but God Bless America sees limited theaters this weekend. Should you check it out?
“Jesus Frank, you look like fuck pie.” As we meet Frank, a lonely, recently unemployed man soaked in discontent for a society gone awry, it’s clear that no more clear a portait of his current state could be painted than the words spoken by his 16-year-old companion, a troubled girl named Roxie. In a country filled with appalling reality television, fear-mongering telepundits and a nation whose prime directive is to be as hopelessly mean to each other as possible, Frank has had enough.
Unable to connect with an oblivious ex-wife and his spoiled rotten 7-year old daughter, and saddled with the news that his migraine headache affliction may, in fact, be a massive brain tumor, Frank sets out to do something noble — shoot a reality TV princess. That’s where he meets Roxie, an onlooker to the murder of a girl who represents all the seething awful that bad upper middle class parenting can create. A troubled young girl who would become the Bonnie to his Clyde, an inspiration for a killing spree that spans all levels of America’s rotten culture. From religious nutjobs to the devotees of an American Idol-esque competition show, no one will escape the wrath of a desperate man and his frighteningly over-zealous sidekick.
To steal from the film’s director during his post-SXSW screening Q&A, Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America is a violent film about kindness. Because unlike other, lesser films to which this one will undoubtedly be compared — the likes of Kevin Smith’s Red State or (gasp) Uwe Boll’s Rampage – the violence is easily overshadowed by the simple, elemental philosophy behind Frank’s spree: he only kills those who deserve to die. “Why do you have to be so mean?” he asks the Glenn Beck-like character at the end of his gun at one point. Because that’s what it comes down to in the end. With this film, Goldthwait is clearly making a political statement. At times it’s as simple and subdued as caricature of any number of recognizable figures, all of whom are understandably loathed. At others it’s a sledgehammer monologue delivered to perfection by his expertly curated cast. And whether it’s found by its audience to be heavy-handed or not, it’s clear that it comes from a genuine place of frustration for the writer/director. It’s his manifesto condensed and punched up for cinematic effect. And he doesn’t seem to care that you agree, just that you can’t take your eyes away from the screen.
Aiding in the searing of audience to screen effect that works so well in God Bless America‘s favor is the chemistry found in its lead duo, Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. Murray plays Frank straight as an arrow. In his opening monologue, we’re introduced to his droll worldview, as personified by the hyper-annoying neighbors on the other side of his paper-thin walls. He’s a tragic figure, but even Murray’s expressionless moments are full of life and energy that move us toward those inevitable, shocking moments of violence. Like any great tragic figure, the lights are on behind Frank’s dead, weathered eyes. The fire rages beneath a stoic disposition. If Murray were not already such a well-regarded big screen player, it would be right to say that this is a map-placing role. Put simply, Murray is exceptional.
Opposite Murray’s brilliantly calm performance is lightning in a bottle as personified by Tara Lynne Barr. To say that she’s got spunk is an understatement. And if calling her “Juno” didn’t send her into a homicidal monologue about Diablo Cody that will make even the most dedicated United States of Tara fan take up arms, it would be an apt way to describe her wit. Like that reference suggests, it’s hard to imagine that any 16-year old girl talks like this, but the film establishes early on that it exists on a plane one step above our reality. A hyper-reality filled with our society’s most dangerous people and ideas, amplified by a lens of rage. All the same, Barr gives one of the most vivacious, deviously funny and dynamic newcomer performances that we’re bound to see all year. She holds her own as the foul-mouthed intelligence of the character put on page by Goldthwait flows through her like a lewd prophet speaking in tongues.
In press throughout this film’s tour from its premiere at Toronto last year to this re-cut premiere at SXSW, Goldthwait has at times referenced Peter Finch’s speech at the end of Network as an inspiration. With God Bless America, he’s created the feature-length manifestation of Finch’s rant. Agree or disagree with the message — which, again, is simply that the world needs kindness — it’s a magnetic film that provides 100 minutes of subversive, blood soaked fun. It’s the film that so many other directors have tried to make, but failed because they allowed the politics to get in the way. Brilliantly executed on all levels, Goldthwait proves himself to be in complete control. He has put together his most technically sound, energetic effort to date. From the way it’s shot to the way it’s scored by newcomer Matt Kollar, God Bless America far outperforms its very modest budget. Not bad for a filmmaker who seems content to make fantastic “little” movies with big, dark ideas. Those ideas prove most important, as Goldthwait continues to be a filmmaker in control of his message. He’s mad as hell, and he’s going to show you what fucking crazy really looks like.
The Upside: Darkly comedic, subversive, rage-filled and infinitely charming. I haven’t quite laughed this hard since Bobcat Goldthwait’s last movie, World’s Greatest Dad.
The Downside: Glenn Beck is going to be burning Goldthwait’s entire filmography in effigy when he finds out about this. Sad times for the Police Academy movies.
God Bless America releases on VOD April 6 and into theaters on May 11. See it.