Would You Rather
David Guy Levy
Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, Jonny Coyne, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Enver Gjokaj, Sasha Grey, John Heard, Charlie Hoffheimer, Logan Miller, June Squibb, Eddie Steeples, Robin Taylor, Robb Wells
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
Would you like to play a game? That’s the question at the heart of 2004’s re-invigoration of the horror genre Saw, a film which went to great lengths to horrify audiences in a new way and spawned a number of look-alike films that have tried their own unique twists on the torture porn subgenre. Would You Rather takes the party game to a new level, a rather deceitful and unnecessary level.
Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) is a wealthy philanthropist whose family money allows him to provide help to those in need, but with a catch. Iris (Brittany Snow) is caring for her ill brother Raleigh (Logan Miller) and is struggling to make ends meet after the death of their parents. When Lambrick offers her the opportunity to have all of her troubles wiped away financially, she reluctantly takes on the challenge proposed by Lambrick. After a dinner party at his swanky estate, Iris and seven others from various walks of life partake in a brutal and deadly game of Would You Rather in an effort to be the last player standing.
And everything goes precisely how you imagine, with the individual “games” being the only question marks. From using ice picks to stab fellow participants in the thigh to self-electrocution, Would You Rather tries mightily to titillate and frighten its audience. Only in its flinching in the sight of violence does the film differ from the overtly graphic Saw.
The film borrows the conceit of corrupted wealth from Hostel while tossing in the life-changing aspects of the Saw franchise, but that’s where the similarities end. More akin to the 2009 psychological competition in Exam, visual effects artist and screenwriter Steffan Schlachtenhaufen’s script permits director David Guy Levy to turn the camera away from the violence as it appears on screen, thus keeping tension higher than in a film flooded with blood and gore. The film does have its share of bloody welts and gunshots to the chest, but the emphasis here is on the emotional toll such baldly vicious games can elicit. The audience joins the camera in its flinching in the sight of bloodshed, but as curious as we are to see the results, it eventually lingers back.
This concept adds engenders respect, but doesn’t absolve the ludicrousness of the festivities. Combs has been playing the villain for well over a decade, his most memorable role being that of the Founder-worshipping Vorta Weyoun on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Much of what he exhibited there is on display here, largely a sociopathic disconnect with those who are subjected to his brutality. Combs adds a touch of faux sentimentality at times, but that veneer is quickly wiped away as he relentlessly picks off his players one by one.
Snow has been working since her youth and has struggled through lackluster roles since her excellent performance in Hairspray. Shifting into the horror business isn’t a positive step for young actresses, even if this isn’t her first excursion there. Should she want to be taken seriously, she should look for this type of role in a less genre-strict feature. Unlike any number of big name Hollywood actors and actresses slumming into high concept horror films, Snow doesn’t quite have the chops to enhance her character beyond the surrounding film. Being the second best in a film in which you are the lead isn’t a good place to be.
The rest of the cast is littered with largely unfamiliar actors working for a paycheck without trying very hard at being notable, original or anything resembling interesting. That is excepting John Heard who was likely hoping this would be a Cary Elwes-type re-emergence from mediocrity, but in a significantly smaller role.
Trying to comment on the disdain of the wealthy for the common man, expecting them to leap through hoops of their own devising just for a speck of normalcy, Would You Rather is a high concept horror-thriller that lacks the cathartic resolution other films have achieved. Spinning the tragedy into something worse in the film’s final scene is equally predictable and cheap. Every ounce the film struggles to comment on the state of modern society without delivering a payload for the audience. We expect the villains to get their comeuppance and our heroes to ride off into the sunset. Denying the audience that release in the final act is almost as heartless as its own Shepard Lembrick.
There are dozens of better films out there that tackle this type of story and hammer home their concepts effectively. Would You Rather has high hopes, but ultimately disappoints. This is a movie that wants to accomplish something, but ends up painting itself into corner after corner from which it cannot escape, then it just gives up and leaves the rest of the foundation unfinished.
July 4, 2013