Francis Von Zerneck’s debut feature, “God’s Lonely Man,” is a stunner both for its technical assuredness and as a chilling saga of an off-kilter character who sets himself up as an urban vigilante. Von Zerneck attacks his material, which is unquestionably derivative of “Taxi Driver,” without cynicism, and avoids sliding into self-conscious homage. Pic will divide critics and is apt to be confined to arthouse or cult screenings.
Ernest (Michael Wyle) is seemingly just another faceless, marginal character who’s landed in L.A. The manager of a porn video store, he’s obsessed with guns and favors routine. He’s also hooked on cocaine.
The young man is drawn to the boss’s daughter (Justine Bateman), and when he confesses his true feelings toward her, his awkward, crude manner gets him fired.
His frustration manifests itself in alternately hostile and kindly actions. He murders his pusher and befriends Christiane (Heather McComb), a teenager from a troubled family whom he decides to rescue from an inattentive mother and a sexually abusive stepfather.
The dramatic arc mirrors Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film more than just coincidentally. Save for a driver’s badge, he is the contemporary Travis Bickle, and Christiane shares the guile and energy of the teenage prostitute role that launched Jodie Foster’s mature career.
Still, the incidents have a unique stripe. Ernest not only liberates the teenager from her home, he sets out to find the girl’s missing younger sister and to inflict vengeance on the people who may have harmed her. The shocking resolution provides an unsettling discovery, a bloody aftermath and an ironic summation.
Though “God’s Lonely Man” begins on a false note, it soon settles into the odd relationship between Ernest and Christiane. It’s a surprisingly tender pairing, even if it elicits much of the film’s violence.
The performances are uniformly strong. Wyle is an oddly charismatic type who, in a mesmerizing performance that startlingly echoes Robert De Niro’s, conveys both a dangerous edge and childlike warmth. McComb embodies a disarming naivete that keeps the relationship from descending into the lurid.
Technically, pic’s a knockout. Beautifully photographed and cut to emphasize tension, it’s a seamless piece that doesn’t draw attention to its fluid style. Writer-director Von Zerneck seems acutely attuned to the material’s dramatic and emotional force.