SDG Reviews ‘Greater’

Catholic actor Neal McDonough costars in a Rudy-like faith-based inspirational sports biopic that dares to explore doubt as well as belief.

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Greater is playing in limited release (find theaters).

Greater has three surprises, which is three more than most faith-based films, particularly of the inspirational sports-movie variety.

First, while the film’s hero is the celebrated Arkansas Razorbacks offensive guard Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) — possibly the greatest walk-on player in college football history — the protagonist is not Brandon, but his brother Marty, played by Neal McDonough of Arrow.

Second, while Brandon’s own faith never wavers, the film cross-examines Christian pieties and even faith itself to a greater degree than any other faith-based film I can think of. In a movie like God’s Not Dead, disbelief is a straw-man villain that exists solely to be vanquished and humiliated by the righteous hero. Here it’s a nagging voice in a grieving believer’s heart asking a question that admits no simple, final answer: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Third, it’s beautifully and atmospherically shot by director David Hunt and cinematographer Gabe Mayan. Dramatic backlighting and silhouettes create a sense of foreboding and uncertainty, resonating with the themes of tragedy and doubt. Creative camerawork is another asset; consider a moment of rapprochement lit by car headlights and filmed through swishing windshield-wiper blades on a night of pouring rain. (Now we see through a glass darkly …)

The story unfolds in two strands. One, told in flashback, is a familiar, uplifting Rudy-like arc of an unpromising underdog who makes good despite enormous obstacles. Greater may not be in Rudy’s league cinematically, but Burlsworth was a far more gifted player than Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. Named an All-American in 1998, he was drafted in 1999 by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round — 11 days before being killed in a vehicular accident.

Brandon doesn’t start out with all that promise. We first meet him as an overweight young couch potato (Ethan Waller) with apparent delusions of grandeur: He’s convinced he’s going to attend the University of Arkansas and play for the Razorbacks.

His brother Marty, 17 years his senior, berates him — “Cheesecake,” he calls him — for his indolence as well as their mother Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook) for her indulgence.

It’s clear, though, that Marty’s harshness is meant as the tough love of an older brother obliged to assume a father-figure role in the absence of their alcoholic bum of a father (Michael Parks of the Kill Bill movies in a small but affecting role). The brothers’ age difference is the basis for one of the movie’s running gags, Marty’s discomfort at being mistaken for Brandon’s father.

Obese, unathletic and clumsy, Brandon confronts his shortcomings as sports-underdog movie heroes have ever done: through determination, hard work and a limitless capacity to absorb punishment, both physical and social.

Lacking the football scholarship he absurdly hoped for, Brandon turns down full rides elsewhere to attend Arkansas. When Marty asks Barbara how she justifies going deep into debt for Brandon’s quixotic dream, she says simply, “My son knows I have faith.” This could mean faith in God, but I took it to mean that money was no object if it meant Brandon knew his mother believed in him.  

It goes without saying that Brandon, making the team as a walk-on (a player who is not recruited or offered an athletic scholarship), is harassed and abused by his teammates. Even when the coach is impressed with Brandon’s dedication, he isn’t exactly nurturing: I can’t think of another movie in which someone compares the hero to horse manure and it’s meant to be encouraging.

Brandon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s a likable one. Unassuming, devout and a little dense, he never drinks, never swears and never takes anything personally. He’s always taking a knee, and he crosses himself (a curious gesture, since from his funeral his family is clearly not Catholic).

He shows up at the stadium for practice long before anyone else is there — and when one of the coaches finds him, he’s idly picking up litter in the parking lot. Asked what he’s doing, Brandon says, “Nothing,” because he really hadn’t given it a second thought.

All this plays out in flashback, with all the usual sports-movie clichés, training sequences, montages, comic relief and so forth. This has all been done, and sometimes done better, but the formula is sturdy, and Severio, in his first role, delivers well enough.

The present-day strand follows preparations for Brandon’s funeral and Marty’s internal struggle with doubt and nihilism, a struggle movingly realized by McDonough. (The devoutly Catholic McDonough, who also executive produced, has called Marty Burlsworth his favorite role.)

Marty’s struggle is not entirely internal. Nick Searcy plays an unnamed character who chats with Marty about the apparent absurdity of existence, and their discussion is a bold and unusual move, even a genre-bending move. As they chat, Searcy whittles a face on a block of wood, a symbolic quirk with a meaning made nearly explicit in a startling line.  

I’m sure Josh Wheaton, the young apologist in God’s Not Dead, would know all the right things to say to Searcy’s character, but then Searcy wouldn’t be permitted to make his case so eloquently in a movie like God’s Not Dead, if he were allowed to appear at all.

Greater uses Marty to critique misguided or deficient forms of faith prior to Brandon’s death. Not as devout as his brother, Marty turns desperately to faith in a moment of crisis when he wants a miracle.

Surely, he reasons, God will be merciful; Marty would be, and he can’t be more merciful than God. Surely God will hear Brandon’s prayer, if not his own; the prayer of a righteous man avails much, and if anyone is righteous, it’s Brandon. This one painful scene is wiser than all the movies the Fireproof / Courageous people have made (including their football movie, Facing the Giants).

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The movie’s response to this question comes in the form of a metaphor. At one point on the gridiron, Brandon argues with a teammate that their perspective on the field is limited; the coach has information from a higher perspective, from a skybox where the whole field can be seen, and they need to trust him.

During Marty’s conversation with Searcy this metaphor is further developed; a pattern emerges that Marty can’t appreciate without a higher perspective. Greater’s response to the problem of evil, to disbelief and nihilism, is not an argument, but an action: a choice to trust. It’s a simple but effective response, nicely underscored by the gospel anthem I’ll Fly Away running through the film.

A coda sums up the impact of Brandon’s life: the programs, scholarships and so forth established in his name. Even in earthly terms it can be argued that Brandon’s life and achievements were not a waste. Greater, though, looks to something more than this: something greater than any loss or tragedy.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Football roughness; some language; some thematic elements including alcoholism and religious questioning. Teens and up.