Written by: Steffen Schlachtenhaufen
Directed by: David Guy Levy
Starring: Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, and Sasha Grey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Keep telling yourself it's just a game.
Nearly three years after its (surely temporary) demise, the Saw series continues to cast a long shadow, as Would You Rather is another film that’d be written off as torture porn if not for its moralizing pretense. Like James Wan’s groundbreaker, it’s centered on a “what-the-hell-would-you-do?” scenario where its victims’ survival instincts are at war with their minds. Despite its familiarity and regrettably generic title (a fate that also befell similar Saw knock-offs like Are You Scared?, which at least had the decency to tack on a question mark), Would You Rather features a clever hook that captures what made Saw so appealing in the first place—you perhaps come for the torture but stay for the somewhat thoughtful (if not supremely obvious) undercurrent.
The story itself revolves around a bait and switch routine: philanthropist Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) stages an annual gathering at his mansion, where he invites a group of people who could benefit from his wealth in some way. This year, one of the candidates is Iris (Brittany Snow), who has moved back home to take care of her Leukemia-stricken brother (Logan Miller). After a job opportunity doesn’t pan out, she decides to take up Lambrick’s offer, and what starts as a quaint but formal gathering of strangers turns into a twisted fight for survival for the group once they realize they’re meant to serve as the night’s amusement. Lambrick’s genteel façade begins to turn into a preening menace once he begins to offer enormous sums of money if the group will sell out its values. For example, Iris’s lifelong commitment to vegetarianism is tested when thousands of dollars is on the line, while a recovering alcoholic (John Heard!) downs a bottle of scotch for $50,000.
While it seems sort of innocuous, there’s something sinister hiding behind Combs’s beady eyes that become palatable once he reveals the evening’s main-event: a high-stakes game of “would you rather,” only it’ll be an especially bloody riff on the game they might have played as children. For the uninitiated, the game involves scenarios where the participants must choose one fate or the other, and Lambrick has crafted a demented variation that will force his guests to exact pounds of flesh. Of course, it’s tough to deny the overbearing familiarity here, as the setup especially resembles those Saw sequels that gathered ensembles before taking a buzz saw to them (one of the more squirm-inducing tortues is a direct lift of a scene from Saw II). Even the character types feel like Xeroxes: you’ve got the nice girl (Snow), the Darwinian asshole that quickly learns its every man for himself (Sasha Grey), some nice guys, a not-so-nice guy with a gambling problem (Rob Wells), etc. If the film has an obvious weakness, it’s the underdeveloped characters and the fact that their eventual tortures rarely tie in with their backstory (there’s some lip-service towards the end), which is an element that often made Saw sing.
Would You Rather doesn’t forego its predecessor’s keen sense of demented imagination, as screenwriter Steffen Schlachtenhaufen spins a savage and cunning yarn that escalates in such a way that it begs a morbid curiosity from viewers. Lambrick’s game starts with the group exchanging electric shocks before graduating to more graphic mutilations, with each round revolving around a particular theme. It’s gripping if only because each sequence is more deranged than the last, but the characters are sketched well enough to prevent it from becoming pure torture porn. Considering she’s the only contestant that the film formally introduces, Iris’s journey is predictable, but Snow is quite convincing in the role that has her wear the film’s central moral quandary on her sleeve once the climax comes into focus. Even the characters that aren’t immediately likable conjure up some pathos—Grey spends the entire movie playing an alpha-bitch who doesn’t think twice about stabbing her opponents, yet it’s hard not to feel some sadness as she marches herself to her certain death.
The central personality here is Combs as Lambrick, who, unlike Jigsaw, is a complete psychopath who delights in forcing others to maim and mutilate themselves. Nobody does this type of eccentric, magnanimous bastard thing better than Combs, and it’s a shame he hasn’t carved out this niche on a larger stage. Here, his gregarious front and sadistic intent make him the unhinged baby of Frederick Loren and John Kramer. He and his associates (like his butler, with whom he seems to have bets on the side) cartoonishly revolting nature keep the film from becoming too dire because it positions viewers firmly on the side of the contestants. There’s no sympathizing with these monsters, so a quick, diverting subplot that sees the victims attempt to turn the tables plays well even as it interrupts the momentum of the game itself. Lambrick and company are so terrible that you can’t help but root for the group, which is better than not feeling anything at all.
Eventually, Would You Rather might try a little too hard to rouse viewers, as the climax rings false on multiple levels and piles on some obvious clichés. I don’t know if the film is ever “fun,” but it’s at least morbidly entertaining until it becomes a bit of a nihilistic beat-down during the final few minutes. It’s not a deal-breaker because the film is otherwise a well-realized effort that’s shot with polish and panache when it might have been easy to just coast on the intriguing premise alone. Instead, everyone involved runs with it and delivers one of the better Saw-inspired efforts.
Given the vacuum left by that franchise, it’s sort of surprising that this one got stuck with a limited release (maybe it’s a signal that the torture thing has come and gone). IFC Midnight has graced it with a decent home video release, as the Blu-ray features a sleek transfer and a surprisingly lively 5.1 DTM-MA track (I say this because most of the film is confined to one set). The extras are a little light—in addition to a centerpiece commentary with director David Guy Levy and Schlachtenhaufen, there’s a poster gallery and a trailer. No one’s going to center a philosophy class on is moral quandaries, but Would You Rather at least keeps up its pretenses long enough to resonate both viscerally and cerebrally. Consider it the more elegant A-side to Tim Ritter’s Truth or Dare in a “kids’ games gone horribly awry” double feature. Buy it!
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