Saturday, March 10, 2012

#SXSW Review: "God Bless America"

Reviewed at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival

“Listen, you fuckers, you screw-heads. Here is a man who would not take if anymore… Here is someone who stood up.” –Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver

“Something is sick in the soul of our country.” –Kirk Cameron, Monumental

Frank (Joel Murray), the hero of Bobcat Goldthwait’s scathing comedy God Bless America, would agree with the former Mike Seaver’s assessment. “No one has any shame anymore,” he tells a co-worker, “and we’re supposed to celebrate it… Why have a civilization anymore if we’re not interested in being civilized?” He does not, however, do what Cameron did (go make a documentary advocating a return to the America of the Pilgrilms and the Founding Fathers—sounds pretty sweet, eh women and minorities?). He chooses the Bickle plan: he buys some guns and starts shooting up the country.

God Bless America is one of the riskiest and darkest American films in years, maybe in decades; ultra-violent and comically nihlistic, it’s going to upset all sorts of people. (Bill O’Reilly will probably be chief among them, but that’s not the only reason to endorse the picture.) However, it’s not just some empty-minded revenge fantasy, or troublesome call to violence—it’s an honest and angry plea to look at what he hell we’ve become, and to worry about where we’re going.

Goldthwait (the stand-up comic turned indie filmmaker behind Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad) lays out his targets early, as Frank sits on the couch in his depressing apartment flipping channels: reality TV, American Idol, Fox News, Fred Phelps, TMZ, clumped together, one right after the other, into a cacophony of screeching cultural decay. It’s not the most sophisticated social satire, but let’s face it, we’re not living in the most sophisticated of societies. What’s intriguing about this sequence, and the replications of current television and radio that pop up periodically in the film, is that Goldthwait doesn’t even bother with comic exaggeration; he changes the names (well, some of them) and basically recreates them, realizing that they’ve already parodies of normal behavior and actual entertainment.

Diagnosed with a terminal illness and discarded by his ex-wife and young daughter, Frank decides to take his own life. Goldthwait incongruously accompanies his (seriously played) breakdown with an asinine reality show clearly modeled on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. His finger literally on the trigger, his attention is caught by the young woman on the program, who throws a fit because her rich daddy didn’t get her the right expensive car. His eyes open. Maybe, he decides, he’ll take care of someone else before he goes.

Frank’s not a professional killer, though, and he makes the amateur mistake of leaving a witness. Luckily, that witness is 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a classmate outcast who couldn’t be happier about what he does. When she tracks him down at the motel where he is, again, preparing to kill himself, she gives him the business. “You had the chance to do something really awesome here,” she insists. “Why quit now?” And with that, they embark on a road trip to make America a better place.

Goldthwait isn’t a terribly flashy filmmaker—his visual style is sparse, the grubby aesthetic sometimes veering into downright ugliness. And while Frank’s occasional soapboxing is logical (let’s face it, that’s how the guy would really talk), the dialogue is sometimes rambling and stilted (Roxy’s monologue about Alice Cooper is an awkward dead end). But he guides his performers smoothly—Murray (familiar from Mad Men) wisely chooses not to wink at the material, and Barr is a likable spitfire with a decidedly Ricci-ish quality—and he does not shy away from the troublesome implications of his story. He chooses a purposefully extreme and outlandish narrative to hang his film on, but the questions he’s asking (about who we are as a country, why we’re that way, and what we want and expect from each other) are real, and are frankly not being considered often enough in popular culture. Bleak and brilliant, God Bless America is a ballsy, blood-soaked black comedy, and its own, peculiar way, it’s a twisted little masterpiece.

"God Bless America" is screening this week at the South By Southwest Film Festival. It premieres on demand on April 6th and opens May 11th in limited release.

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