The dark comedy God Bless America feeds on disgust with pop culture, but also takes aim at its audience.
Who hasn't been there? You're sitting on the couch late at night, too tired to get up and go to bed, too lazy to change the channel, and suddenly you're watching some program that displays the lower demons of our nature: spoiled teenagers throwing fits about their parents buying them the "wrong" car, news commentators spewing hatred, entertainment shows feeding off our tendency to obsess over the public failings of celebrities. Faced with proudly packaged evidence of our collective cultural decline, you think to yourself, "Man, would I ever like to lock one of these people in their car and stuff a flaming rag into their gas tank."
OK, perhaps your frustration doesn't go that far. But that's exactly what Frank (Joel Murray, a familiar character actor who shines in his first lead role here), the "hero" of Bobcat Goldthwait's new God Bless America, is thinking. But before violently fantasizing about the figures on his TV screen, the constant noise of the boorish residents of the apartment next door inspires him to dream of taking a shotgun to all three of them, incessantly screaming infant included. Frank's reverie—which includes the image of exploded baby parts showering the mother who had held up her child as a human shield—is an efficient introduction of the dark, unrelenting violence that is to follow. But this is no simple wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy. It's an indictment of us as viewers and tacit supporters of the cultural trash heap.
"I wasn't interested in doing just an out-and-out vigilante movie where you have a despicable person do[ing] horrible things and then you kill them, and people feel better about themselves," Goldthwait told me. But for the first half of its runtime, that's exactly what it appears the movie might become, as Frank quickly develops the intent to kill anyone guilty of making society worse.
He's got nothing to lose. Due to a mercilessly politically correct office culture, he finds himself suddenly out of a job. Then he's diagnosed with a brain tumor. When he gets a call from his bratty daughter, who's having a tantrum because his ex-wife bought her a Blackberry instead of an iPhone, he decides to delay his planned suicide in order to murder a My Super Sweet 16-style reality-TV star whom he sees as the cultural cause for his daughter's spoiling.
His plan is to kill the girl and then off himself in a cheap hotel room, but another teen witnesses the murder and tracks him down before he can turn the gun on himself. Far from wanting to turn him in, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) goads him into a cross-country killing spree, taking out the entitled, the disrespectful, and the shallow, wherever they might be.
Their targets have real-world analogues who aren't difficult to pick out. It would be fair to assume that Goldthwait would film the reality show segments and FOX News-style spots as parody-style exaggerations, but the director actually plays these completely straight: They're simply restaged versions of actual shows. This decision keeps the film grounded in a recognizable world, making it easy to identify which character is standing in for Bill O'Reilly, or Glenn Beck, or TMZ celebrity reporter Harvey Levin.
In so doing, Goldthwait plays kind of a dirty trick on audiences sympathetic to his position that these are awful people: He encourages guilty pleasure in seeing these figures pay for their sins, even if the punishment far outstrips any crime. Is it overkill for Frank to put a bullet in the head of a girl unapologetically talking on the phone in a movie theater? Of course, but for anyone who spends a lot of time in the cinema, it's hard to suppress a little internal cheer when she gets it. Even Goldthwait felt some satisfaction in filming parts of the rampage: "The really cathartic moment in the movie for me was shooting Harvey Levin in the throat, and then running over [Westboro Baptist Church head] Reverend Phelps's doppelgänger."
By luring audiences into Frank's headspace, Goldthwait involves them in the crisis of conscience he experiences when the wheels start coming off this savage road trip, and it becomes clear and that things are going way too far. "Frank realizes that he's a human being, he's flawed, his idea of the world really wouldn't work out," Goldthwait says. "I really do want you to eventually go, 'I don't know how I feel about this.' Nobody's innocent."
By "nobody," he means even himself and those watching. Had Frank and Roxy simply killed all these thinly veiled symbols of cultural decay so as to gratify viewers, Goldthwait could have been accused of trying to have his mayhem and enjoy his moral superiority too. But when the movie turns around and points its finger back at those clinging to that moral superiority, adding guilt to their pleasure, Goldthwait indicts us all for our inhumanity towards those we consider inhumane.
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It's a daring move for the filmmaker, because it risks alienating the already-small audience watching the movie. Goldthwait knows that the more obvious targets here—the people who have inspired Frank to declare, "We've lost our kindness; we've lost our soul"—aren't going to be interested in God Bless America.
"I don't think I'm gonna reach those people," he says of Internet commenters who respond to the film's YouTube trailer with racial slurs towards the director's Jewish heritage and of people who find it ludicrous that he suggest it might be wrong to text in a movie theater. "I'm just trying to find the other star-bellied sneetches that feel completely out of sync."
If we have lost our kindness as a culture, if there are some people too far gone to reach with this movie, and if even the intended, presumably sympathetic audience bears some responsibility, then how does Goldthwait see the culture recovering? He's not much more optimistic than Frank: "I don't know if it can reverse," he says. Beyond encouraging viewers to examine their own responses to society and whether they're part of the problem, the director says, laughing, "The message is, to quote the late great Michael Jackson, 'You are not alone.'"