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Taking revenge on idiot America


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 headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, God Bless America



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Existing comments

So, really, it's just yet another film from the USA that echoes the very things it purports to find obnoxious. Vengeance, guns, shouting, no doubt vast amounts of smoking, poor driving and wobbly camera action (possibly?) all adds up to, well, the same. Can Americans ever get 'understatement' or does that elude them as constantly as 'irony'? We all know the 24th Amendment, 'It is the right of every American male to shoot the president' permeates every fibre of life in that distorted nation but do we really have to watch that theme play out in every single film they ever make?

janice wallace | 22 November 2012  

I think it was G.K.Chesterton who commented on the horror people felt at the idea of a machine that could think like a man. He went on to say a far greater horror has emerged. - Men who thought like machines;- devoid of the finer feelings of compassion or even of the appalling likely consequences of their policies. Media moguls have only one concern; increasing their circulation or audience. Politicians put being elected as their first priority. Slogans like "Turn back the boats", ignore the plight of refugees; out-of-sight, out-of-mind. "Freedom of speech", and "The public have a right to know", ignore whatever bad consequences are likely to follow. Advertisers push the idea of "You deserve all the self-indulgence you can get". Self-centered concerns are the flavour of the times, and are likely to remain so until their inevitable disasters force people to realise that cooperation and respect for others is a vital constituent of any lasting progress.

Robert Liddy | 22 November 2012  

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