“God Bless America” (2011) starts with a pulsating opening sequence. In these scenes, the main protagonist, Frank (Joel Murray), enters a house with a shotgun and goes on a shooting spree, killing a family. The segment is played in slow motion, with a trigger-happy Frank playing as though an actor in an opera. What looks like a grisly scene is, in fact, Frank’s dream. Frank wakes from this disturbing dream and is soon seen flipping channels on a TV that is bombarded with reality TV shows and fear-mongering news channels. Through Frank’s eyes in the opening moments, we surely get a glimpse of American pop culture manufactured by network media in the U.S.
Frank’s character represents the deeper problems of America’s middle class: broken families, loneliness, depression, and job insecurity. Frank is divorced, and his wife has the custody of their only daughter; he never gets to see his daughter, though. Meanwhile, to worsen the situation, Frank is fired from his job on a sexual harassment charge. He is bored and depressed and thinks of committing suicide. After seeing a teenager throw a tantrum on TV about a birthday present, Frank decides to kill the teenager. Soon, Frank meets Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who also shares the same feelings as Frank does that some people should just die. The two of them kill the teenager’s parents and continue their killing spree by killing more people.
Just as Frank does, Roxy comes from a dysfunctional family; her mother is a drug addict and her stepfather is a rapist. Even though their relationship seems a bit odd initially, their family problems and a profusion of mindless network TV shows unites them in their mission, however crazy it might sound. The American society is obsessed and fascinated by reality TV shows and nonstop news media, and Frank despises the current state of society. For him the concept of a society has failed in its current form, as people don’t care much for each other anymore. At some level, Frank is politically conscious, and this is evident in a scene where he interacts with a right-wing news analyst. Gun control is very important to Frank, but here we have two protagonists, Frank and Roxy, who talk only with their guns. Surely, in their minds they are doing the right thing, and we do see the argument the pair are trying to make with their actions. Nonetheless, the duo are gradually addicted to violence, eventually setting up for a blaze-of-glory moment. Of the two, Roxy is more coldhearted and in some ways overly psychotic than Frank, carrying an unsympathetic gaze at all times. But Frank is more mature and morally strong as he tries to find a real motive for killing that would justify his actions. If Roxy is impulsive, then Frank is more thoughtful; yet both have flaws that they can’t fix.
Indeed, the pairing of Frank and Roxy reminds us of the pairing of Mickey and Mallory in a similar themed movie, Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994), in that both the couples come from shattered families. While Stone’s movie shows the media obsessed with criminals glorifying violence, director Bobcat Goldthwait in “God Bless America” shows a different side of the media, balancing violence with lighthearted, carefree dialogue and providing the appropriate tone for a black comedy. In the shooting scenes, the action is deliberately shot in slow motion, thereby lessening (or increasing) the impact of grotesque violence. At times the violence is outrageous, and yet funny, too.
For the most part, “God Bless America” is pure fun, showing us the two polar opposite characters who have snapped due to emotional stress originating from their family situations. Frank’s transformation to a killer is believable, and actor Murray underlines the introvert aspect of his character with conviction. Moreover, Frank’s killer image is plausible because the script rightly develops his character from all angles. But this cannot be said for Roxy’s character, and her transformation feels forced. In the storytelling aspect, once the killing starts, there is not much depth either in the story or the characters. After the characters’ situations are laid out, the narrative structure is fairly predictable, and we know how the story of Frank and Roxy will end. Still, the film features a good performance from Murray and with its sharp editing and short running time, “God Bless America” succeeds in entertaining, mostly.
Magnolia presents the film in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, encoded using an AVC codec. The film has plenty of bright outdoor scenes that are rendered beautifully, with well-balanced contrasts that are not excessively bright. The transfer is crisp, with bold, vibrant colors. The grain is present texturally, making the transfer more film-like. The close-ups are detailed, and flesh tones are lifelike.
The film’s soundtrack is presented via a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Mainly, the film is a dialogue driven affair and the dialogue is always clearly audible. However, occasionally the dialogue appears a bit muddled, and one has to raise the volume to understand what the characters are saying. In the action sequences, the gunshots sound realistic, with a balanced bass. The rear channels, however, are not utilized much even in the action sequences.
First, we get an audio commentary track with director Bobcat Goldthwait and actors Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. It’s a fun track in which we get insights on the story and its link to the “Mad Men” series. Next, “Behind the Scenes: Killing with Kindness” shows behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast, along with production details. Up next, there are deleted and extended scenes. Following these, we get interviews with Bobcat Goldwait, Joel Murray, and Tara Lynne Barre, where we get more details on the characters and the origin of the story. Next, “HDNet: A Look at God Bless America” is a promotional look at the film, showing snippets from the film and previous interviews. Finally, there is a Roxy & Frank music video, followed by a theatrical trailer.
“God Bless America” is a bizarre movie that offers a satire on today’s American society and media. The film is violent, but it is overly stylized and mixed with comedic moments, thereby making the film presentable. Murray’s character is likeable and easy to relate to, and the script balances everything in the right proportions. Despite its flaws, the film is entertaining, and if you enjoyed “Natural Born Killers,” chances are you might enjoy “God Bless America.”