We live our lives with innumerable expectations: that the sun will set and rise, that an apple will fall downward when dropped, that our loved ones will not suddenly abandon us, that what is good today will still be good tomorrow, and so on. Such expectations lend our lives a semblance of order and it is there that the meaning of our lives has its home.
But sometimes the thoroughly unexpected happens, and if that happening is bad it subverts our sense of an ordered and meaningful world. Put simply, when we face an inexplicable tragedy, the meaning of our lives is at stake. Naturally, at such times we look for an explanation from the authority ultimately responsible for the matter to set ourselves aright.
This perennial phenomenon of human experience—the search for God in the wake of inexplicable tragedy—has thus been the basis of innumerable profound works of art. It is also the basis of writer-director Scott Brignac’s feature-length debut: Playing God.
The film, released on August 6 in theaters and on-demand, depicts an orphaned con-artist brother-sister duo who try to rob a tycoon distraught over the death of his daughter in a traffic accident by convincing him they are angels looking to arrange a meeting between him and God. To play “God” the duo enlists their ex-con mentor, and the trio thereafter navigate subplots involving cartoonishly wholesome friends, whom the sister routinely defrauds, and a mobster, to whom the brother is deeply indebted.
Halfway through an already quite contrived plot, it is revealed that the tycoon had been in a relationship with the duo’s mother shortly before her death. On cue, the sister develops doubts regarding the con whereas her brother’s resolve strengthens, each apparently emboldened by the characters in their respective sublots. Following the con’s success, a remorseful sister and vainglorious brother part ways: He leaves with his mobster friend and she gets an honest job as a waitress. At the end, the sister and tycoon meet with tearful smiles in the spirit of reconciliation. The scene darkens. A passage from Genesis glows warmly on the screen: “You meant evil against me. But God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result.”
The older supporting actors, particularly Alan Tudyk as the tycoon, deliver performances exceeding the quality of their lines. But the leads Luke Benward and Hannah Kasulka—the former notable for his roles in various Disney productions and the latter for her run on Filthy Preppy Teen$—deliver performances that fail to overshadow Brignac’s dialogue, which deserves instancing: When the siblings try to persuade their reluctant mentor to help them by playing “God,” he tells them, “This is, professionally speaking, bonkers!” The brother responds, “We need you, Frank!” He retorts, “I’m not going back to prison.” Again, the brother pleads, “C’mon Frank, throw us a bone.” The sister adds passionately, “We’re in over our heads!”
Such is the repartee that inundates Brignac’s scenes, most of which only seem to exist to flesh out the relatively wooden lead characters, but which backfire by being wooden themselves: The sister’s friends come off less as virtuous than they do naive, and the brother’s mobster associate less evil than manic. But all this could be excused if Brignac did not take such pains to give his film the sheen of religious authority by sprinkling it with sophomoric biblical and theological allusions.
Many of the characters are given biblical names: “Rachel,” “Micah,” “Ben,” and even “Jesús” (which is ever so subtly allotted to the bearded assistant of the ex-con mentor). The tycoon builds a corrugated sheet metal structure unmistakably evocative of Bruegel’s iconic painting of the Tower of Babel in his backyard, which at one point he sits atop to talk with “God,” and later burns.
Pointedly, during that conversation the tycoon presents the problem of evil (the problem of reconciling the notion of an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God with a world filled with inexplicable tragedy). “God” then counters with the infamously unconvincing theodicy (solution to the problem of evil) that instances of inexplicable tragedy only appear to be so in restricted contexts, but that when they are contextualized cosmically, they are evidently justified—using the traditional analogy of a small section of a painting viewed up-close versus at a distance.
To drive home this particular theodicy (perhaps Brignac thought the ironically contextless biblical passage at the end of the film insufficient) he shows the brother near the beginning of the film knowingly inform his doubtful sister of the value of an abstract painting in the tycoon’s house. Later, when he steals it, he likewise reassures his equally doubtful mobster associate (presumably in case audiences miss the message the first time around).
But such sprinklings could be excused were it not for Brignac’s explicit pretensions to profundity. Watershed Motion Pictures, a four person team—which besides Brignac conspicuously includes the male lead’s father, Aaron Benward—sets forth in its mission statement (likely authored by Brignac) a laundry list of platitudes, such as “Telling stories is not only an art, but a powerful tool,” and “Story, plus truth, is a potent mix of influence,” as well as affirmations, “We aim to provoke the audience to introspection without neglecting our primary motivation to entertain,” and, “We believe that truth fulfills the deep needs of every human and is the foundation from which all of our stories are told.”
Assuming these things are meant sincerely, it’s no surprise Brignac peppers what would otherwise be a standard thriller with seemingly true (or at the very least harmless) bits of religious seasoning. But given his reliance on biblical allusions, it is strange that he neglects the book of the Bible that deals most directly with the problem of evil.
In the book of Job, the title character, like Brignac’s tycoon, cries out to God in the face of an inexplicably tragic turn of events. Eventually, God answers his cry, but not with reassurances that the misfortunes he had borne were ultimately for his sake, or even for the sake of cosmic justice, but with a reminder that He is God, the Lord of Creation, and that Job is a small part of that creation. This narrative theodicy is perhaps tough to swallow, but it has been made cinematically palatable before, particularly in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia.
Arguably, the profound truth in the book of Job and those three films, which portray a fittingly inexplicable solution to the problem of inexplicable tragedy, is what is chiefly lacking in Playing God. Perhaps Brignac is unfamiliar with Job. But if he is, it’s strange that he borrows only loosely relevant biblical names and symbols when he could have easily plundered it—unless that’s simply not the sort of film he wanted to make. Rather, it seems he wanted to make an entertaining crime thriller with a feel-good, plausibly edifying ending.
But Watershed’s assertion, “truth fulfills the deep needs of every human,” though formulated in the parlance of a PowerPoint slide, is essentially correct. To live well in the world, we need to know about the world as it is. (If a man walks into an apiary thinking it’s an aviary, he’s in for a bad time.) In the world as it is, inexplicable tragedy exists: helpless fawns burn in wildfires, babies die excruciating deaths from horrific diseases, plagues wipe out millions, and so on. But in Brignac’s world evil is a cardboard plot device.
Such pseudo-religious filmmaking, perhaps best exemplified by the now infamous God’s Not Dead franchise, is doubtlessly intended to combat the influence of secular media. Yet, such filmmakers do little more in practice than conform exactly to secular caricatures of the religious as (at best) well-meaning people who choose to live their lives in fantasy lands because they cannot handle or perhaps even comprehend reality—and worse, because their plots are so contrived, they deprive audiences of the very truths they ostensibly cherish. To wit, Playing God plays for high stakes, and loses.
Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including Church Life, American Spectator, University Bookman, New English Review, and National Review Online. Follow him: @MichaelShindler.