It comes at around the half hour mark of Austin Stark’s medical drama that you begin to realise the film has slowly begun to engross you in its spell. There is something to be said about a movie that at first might seem overly cliche that slowly unwinds those cliches and offers a thought provoking meditation of conscience and consequences.
The God Committee follows a group of six people – gruff cardio-surgeon Boxer (Kelsey Grammer), his lover and rising doctor Taylor (Julia Stiles), chief of hospital Gilroy (Janeane Garofalo), former attorney-turned-pastor Dunbar (Colman Domingo), head of nursing Wilkes (Patricia R Floyd) and psychiatrist Lau (Peter Kim) – as they sit down to decide which of the three patients in their care deserves to get a donor heart that has a half an hour until it needs to be used.
The film has a strange structure, jumping between the intense thirty minutes the six people – each with their own personal and professional reasons for picking their respective patient – deliberating, constantly counting down until the heart needs to be used or it becomes unviable and a nine years later narrative in which we see Boxer ailing, working for a private medical company trying to transfer animal organs into different species so that it can be done to humans, while ignoring contact from Taylor.
There are some neat rug pulls; Stark sets up expectations and then undermines them by other revelations, and it’s not hard to see the critique of the US medical system by which rich patients can promise shed loads of money to be bumped up waiting lists. But the future stuff is all melodrama about lost passion and unknown children, and despite the best efforts of both Grammer and Stiles, it never really takes off.
What works is the boardroom, the chance six people have to play God and decide who gets to live and who gets to die, and the revelations about all three patients. The six decision makers are interesting, and lead by a suitably gruff Grammer giving a fantastic performance of hidden depth despite being put in a silly wig – one assumes to make him look younger, but this is a man who has looked the same since the year 2000.
When it’s confined to the board room and the halls of the hospital with the ever present ticking clock, the jabs made at the medical establishment, the interpersonal relationships and the moral complexity works best. One assumes the future section is supposed to explore what making such a decision does to people, but focusing broadly on two when six people made the choice is a missed opportunity to explore what those choices do.
Much of the future set stuff works because Stiles is a committed actress and is able to project a stern resolve against Grammer’s sometimes comically misanthropic doctor. By the end when the final scene plays out, there is a genuine dilemma at the heart of the film, and maybe the answer is a simple one – better others play God than us.
The God Committee will be released on July 19th.