God Bless America (MA). Director: Bobcat Goldthwait. Starring: Joel Muray, Tara Lynne Barr. 105 minutes
During the first episode of the great American drama series Breaking Bad, chemistry teacher Walter White puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Recently diagnosed with lung cancer, Walt had turned to manufacturing methamphetamine as a way to provide for his family after his death. When this scheme seemingly unravels, in desperation, he tries to kill himself. But at that fatal moment, the weapon fails. He survives, but is not the same.
God Bless America, too, features a disaffected middle-aged, middle-class man for whom the diagnosis of a terminal illness is the catalyst for abandoning civilised existence for a life of crime. Like Walt, Frank (Murray) enters into a perspective where the old rules of society seem insignificant. But whereas Walt's suicide attempt crystalises a reordering of his moral priorities, Frank's moral compass remains steady, if decidedly skewed.
He has become increasingly horrified by the vacuous and exploitative nature of American media. In particular, he is appalled by the extent to which it seems to feed, and be fed by, cruelty and selfishness in public behaviour and conversation. After a series of personal setbacks, including losing his job, suffering a romantic rejection of a most humiliating nature, and being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Frank snaps — and goes on a killing spree.
The final straw comes with the realisation that his teenage daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, is displaying spoilt behaviour that mirrors the over-the-top brattishness of a popular reality-TV figure. As a result, Frank's targets are centrally media figures whom he blames for the ill behaviour of his fellow citizens; although, problematically, his murderous agenda expands to include anyone that he decides 'deserves to die'.
In God Bless America, comedian-cum-iconoclastic filmmaker Goldthwait has created a brutal, didactic satire. His satirising of the media is particularly subversive and hilarious. As Frank channel-surfs one night we see a Hispanic teen ridiculed by the judges of an American Idol style talent show — the youth subsequently attempts suicide; a participant on a reality program titled Tuff Girls extracting an in-use tampon and hurling it at a rival; and a news anchor spouting hate-filled propoganda so extreme that it might make Fox News think twice.
Goldthwait pulls few punches with a film that is sharp and funny but exceedingly violent. His antihero Frank has a violent streak even before this endless stream of television trash drives him off the rails. He fantisises about murdering idiotic co-workers, and even the wailing infant child of an obnoxious neighbour (he does not act on this, although Goldthwait does provide us with a gruesome dream sequence that is played for black humour).
There is a kind of snobbery, as well as a strange nobility, to Frank's quest. In contrast with the figure of Walter White, whose world view becomes increasingly corrupted, Frank's values — skewed as they may be — hold steady. His choice of victims remains consistent with his manifesto, on which he expatiates frequently, and compellingly. One suspects that during these monologues Frank provides a direct mouthpiece for the director.
The greatest test to Frank's moral fortitude comes in the form of Roxy (Barr), an insecure teen who becomes his unlikely sidekick. Roxy, equally disillusioned with humankind but also in desperate need of personal validation, gently leaves ajar windows of opportunity for their partnership to take on a sexual dimension. Frank, to his credit, is so determined not to become 'part of the problem' with America that he firmly closes those windows.
Their friendship lends sweetness to a film that might otherwise be rendered unpalatable by the gratuitous violence and tendency towards preachiness. As it stands God Bless America labours its point (it could profitably have lost 20 minutes from its running time) but provides a stunning riposte to passivity in media consumption.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.