An unusual contempo parable about life choices, “Playing God” is an arresting, if muddled, first feature with plenty of energy and style. Despite its genre trappings, this is highbrow fare with good mainstream theatrical and ancillary prospects.
Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) hasn’t quite hit bottom … yet. A decertified surgeon, he’s drifting in a drug-induced cloud through some of the seedier bars of Los Angeles. One evening, he stumbles into one looking to make a score and gets something else in the bargain: A man standing beside him is shot, and Eugene jumps into action, turning the joint into a makeshift operating room. It’s the best rush he’s had in months.
His good work doesn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. Several days later, a limo pulls up and takes him to meet Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton), a wheeler-dealer involved in sundry illegal activities. Eugene recognizes Raymond’s girlfriend, Claire (Angelina Jolie), from the evening of the shooting.
Raymond plies the man with compliments, drugs and heady times. A few days later, he offers him the chance to be his in-house surgeon and promptly serves up a rapidly hemorrhaging gangster, surgical tools, a modest emergency room and a couple of assistants. It’s an offer that disturbs Eugene greatly but which neither the Hippocratic Oath nor his own inner motor will allow him to turn down.
The setup of “Playing God” is rich in irony. A man trained to save lives finds himself working for someone whose morality is shaped by the seven deadly sins. It’s a Faustian pact, and the devil may be somewhat responsible for what motivates Eugene. But another demon emerges in the form of an FBI agent (Michael Massee) who wants to nail Raymond to the cross and doesn’t care how he accomplishes that end. The fed already has at least one mole inside the crime organization and a series of plans and counter-plans to trap Raymond no matter which direction he turns.
Mark Haskell Smith’s screenplay is a wild ride of ideas and mayhem, ambiguity and collisions. It’s far from air-tight in its logic, but so frenzied in delivery that one can do little but hold onto the sides of the roller-coaster and experience the ride. Director Andy Wilson knows how to deliver the visceral thrills and bombards the viewer with razzle-dazzle images and eye-catching editing techniques.
But the more sober-sided aspects of the story aren’t obliterated by gun play, high-decibel music and variegated plot twists. There is just enough breathing room to consider why Eugene pushed himself past the speed limit as a surgeon and lost both his perspective and license. One also has to weigh whether his acceptance of the deal with Raymond isn’t some form of self-punishment or a desperate attempt to redeem himself for past sins.
Duchovny, in his first starring role post-“X-Files” fame, is perfect for this type of inwardly reflective role. He never tips his hand, so one is constantly caught off-guard by Eugene’s behavior. The character is obviously grounded by a sense of what is right and still quite capable of heinous acts.
Hutton takes great delight in embodying the other extreme. Big, obvious and grating, his self-consumption is somehow appealing from the safety of an aisle seat. The supporting performances are almost all nicely observed, although Massee’s rogue agent is more a device than an organic part of the plot.
Not a typically slick piece of merchandise, “Playing God” has a distinctive look, very much in keeping with L.A. noirs, that’s fittingly rough-and-tumble. Wilson, a grad of Brit TV, including “Cracker,” offers a keen outsider’s view of the terrain that’s extremely satisfying.