Review: Independent “Playing God” Set in Houston is a Completely Enjoyable Thriller
Luke Benward, Michael McKean and Hannah Kasulka in “Playing God”, shot in Houston
Photo: Courtesy of Scott Brignac
In the movies, the long scam usually stays low to the ground, relying on feints and tricks that, in hindsight, were right in front of you from the start. The new Houston-based film “Playing God” takes a different tack. His royal swindle is embellished with a spiritual dimension, or at least the illusion of one, raising the stakes for both the authors and the brand. Ultimately, bringing God into the mix conjures up all kinds of moral dilemmas.
Rachel (Hannah Kasulka) and Micah (Luke Benward) are orphaned twins who have turned into skilled crooks, working short and long rackets. Charming, attractive, they know how to use what they have – until Micah’s past catches up with them in the form of a villain named Vaughn (Mark Menchaca of “Ozark”). It seems Micah cheated Vaughn out of $ 100,000; being a villain, Vaughn is willing to play hard to get his money back.
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These early moments strike “Playing God” as a balance between comedy and thriller, with a lean funk score (by Joshua Moore) and plenty of downtown Houston (including plenty of drone shots). There is something joyful about the tone, even when we are made to believe that Rachel and Micah’s lives are in danger.
Then things start to get interesting. The twins are alerted to the presence of Ben (Alan Tudyk), a billionaire in a desperate spiritual quest following the death of his young daughter. Tudyk, one of the best actors in the game, manages to infuse this tragic character with comic notes. For Micah, however, he is only a potential brand, and exceptionally rich in addition. How can the twins use Ben’s spiritual anguish to separate him from his money?
That brings us to the film’s other golden supporting performance and the required leap of faith from the audience. The twins visit their former mentor Frank (Michael McKean, better known these days for his work on “Better Call Saul”). Frank runs an ice rink, a beautifully long, dark space where he spends much of his time sanitizing the skates. Rachel and Micah have something grander on their minds – literally playing God for grieving Ben, in the hopes of mowing him dry.
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This is where you go or where “Playing God” takes you – maybe McKean could pass for the Almighty? – or you get off the route. Except that it is actually possible to do both. It’s slim vanity that Ben is close enough to the end of his rope to buy the trick, no matter how hard Tudyk and McKean sell it. But you don’t have to believe it to enjoy it. What doesn’t work at the logical level makes sense depending on the characters and performances. And the twists and turns – a scam movie always has twists and turns – are pretty satisfying, even if you see them coming. (I haven’t, but rarely do).
Operating time: 95 minutes
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*** 1/2 (out of 5)
Written and directed by Scott Brignac of Houston, “Playing God” is a highly competent independent film with a lot on mind. Two of my favorite questions here: How does ethics play into the art of scamming? And does spiritual despair make someone more likely to believe? The fact that “Playing God” offers few clear answers is a sign of its ambition and a good reason to watch. It might be slippery, but it’s not superficial.
Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.