13 Sins, Bardi Johannsson, Brittany Snow, Charlie Hofheimer, cinema, Daniel Hunt, David Guy Levy, dinner party, director-producer, dramas, dysfunctional family, Eddie Steeples, Enver Gjokaj, father-son relationships, film reviews, films, games, isolated mansion, Jeffrey Combs, John Heard, Jonny Coyne, June Squibb, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Logan Miller, Movies, psychological torture, rich vs poor, Robb Wells, Robin Lord Taylor, Sasha Grey, self-mutilation, Shepard Lambrick, Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, Steven Capitano Calitri, thriller, torture, Would You Rather
In many ways, Iris (Brittany Snow), the protagonist of David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather (2012), is like a lot of folks in this modern economy: stuck between a rock and a much heavier, sharper rock. She’s the sole caretaker for her cancer-stricken younger brother, Raleigh (Logan Miller), it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet and the future is looking increasingly grim. When she’s passed over for a hostess job that wouldn’t dig her out of the hole but would, at the very least, allow her and her brother to keep eating, it’s safe to say that Iris has slipped from the rarefied ranks of the “getting by” to the much less desired “left behind.”
All’s not lost, however: Raleigh’s kindly doctor, Barden (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), arranges a meeting between Iris and mysterious aristocrat/philanthropist, Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs). It seems that Lambrick and his equally mysterious “foundation” hold regular “games” where groups of needy people are brought together: the winner of these games gets whatever support they need from the foundation for the rest of their lives. In Iris’ case, winning the game would mean getting an instant bone marrow transplant for her brother, along with enough money to set them up for the rest of their lives. When offered the chance to have all of our financial problems simply “vanish,” who among us would turn down a similar offer?
Canny genre fans, of course, will recognize this for the worst kind of sucker’s bet: historically, we know that nothing comes for free and if it’s too good to be true, it probably involves torture. Once Iris gets to the Lambrick mansion and meets the other seven participants, ranging from the obligatory conspiracy theorist (extra points for also making him the token recovering alcoholic) to a kindly, wheelchair-bound old lady and a sullen Iraq war vet, it becomes clear that this probably won’t be a winner-takes-all Pokemon tournament. By the time Lambrick’s obviously nutso son, Julian (Robin Lord Taylor), has made his entrance, we begin to get the idea that this particular royal-blue bloodline is a little compromised. Once Lambrick’s formerly MI-5-employed butler, Bevins (Jonny Coyne), wheels his old torture rig in, however, the full measure of madness becomes much clearer. This won’t end well…for anyone.
If horror and genre films are a good indicator of what particular fears are running rampant in society during any given era, it’s especially telling that the last five years or so have seen such a proliferation in two rather specific subgenres: the doppelgänger film and the “rich people using poor people for sport” film. If you think about it, though, it makes perfect sense: in this era of the social media “identity,” it’s only natural for folks to assume that, somewhere out there, an alternate version of themselves is having a much better time. What is social media, after all, if not a great opportunity to present a carefully cultivated persona to the outside world, regardless of how much it might (or might not) resemble the actual person?
By that token, perhaps no subgenre bears as much current relevancy (at least in the United States) as “rich people using poor people for sport.” One need only look at the current state of income equality to see that this particular pyramid has an extremely small apex and a ridiculously wide base: when so few individuals hold so much wealth and power, it’s understandable that the less fortunate might begin to view these wealthy as virtual deities, capable of doling out both misery and good fortune with equal aplomb. If the game truly is rigged, perhaps the best course of action is to make friends with the dealer and hope for the best.
In many ways, Levy’s film (written by Steffen Schlachtenhaufen) is a much grimmer, more stage-bound version of Daniel Stamm’s 13 Sins (2014) (or vice-versa, since Would You Rather preceded the other by a few years). The action, here, is confined almost exclusively to the mansion and its grounds (mostly the dining room), unlike the more free-roaming 13 Sins. The focus in Levy’s film is also on the psychological torment of the characters rather than Stamm’s focus on the often shocking stunts. To that end, Would You Rather definitely comes off as the more serious and “austere” of the two, despite its eventual descent into the kind of blood-soaked madness that we expect.
As grim and relentless as a freight train, Levy’s film gains much of its impact from another typically excellent performance by Jeffrey Combs (can’t someone just give him the Lifetime MVP award, already, and get it over with?), as well as an exceptionally sturdy turn from Pitch Perfect’s (2012) Brittany Snow. Unlike protagonists like 13 Sins’ Elliot or Cheap Thrills’ (2014) Vince, Iris is a much more likable, relatable character. We’re pulling for her every step of the way, which makes her inevitable bad decisions even more painful to watch. The relationship between Iris and her brother is also nicely depicted in the film, gaining some genuine resonance from Snow and Miller’s intuitive interactions: they actually feel like a brother and sister, which is quite refreshing.
While the cast is consistently solid (it was a real hoot to see Eddie Steeples – better known as Crab Man from My Name is Earl – in a rare serious role and he really kills it), there are a few lead weights: Sasha Grey, who turned in a pretty great performance in the recent Open Windows (2014), is as obnoxious as possible and as abrasive as fingernails on chalkboard with her “performance” as Amy and Trailer Park Boys’ main-man Robb Wells feels decidedly out-of-place with his broader take on the character of Peter. I usually really enjoy Wells (he was outstanding in Hobo With a Shotgun (2011), for example), so it was doubly disappointing to find him so tedious here.
For the most part, though, Would You Rather is stuffed with lots to like: Jonny Coyne’s congenial sociopath is a great character and almost steals the film from Combs, which is no mean feat. Taylor has fun playing the sleazy Julian, although his broad performance almost goes off the rails, at times. While the film can be slightly repetitive in the early stages of the “game” (all participants must do the same trials, which significantly cuts down on the “what’s coming?” factor that can work so well in keeping our hearts in our throats), Levy and Schlachtenhaufen display an admirably dark wit once it gets to the penultimate phase, where contestants must choose between spending two minutes underwater or the unique, unknown test on the cards before them: it’s here where Would You Rather really takes off, featuring some truly inspired, twisted setpieces.
All in all, it’s hard to find much fault in Would You Rather: the script is solid, the performances are generally top-notch, the cinematography (courtesy of Steven Capitano Calitri) is quite evocative and well-staged and the ’80s-inspired score (by Daniel Hunt and Bardi Johannsson) is a real knockout. The film manages to maintain a fairly high degree of tension, throughout, and if the subplot involving the kindly doctor racing to save Iris never amounts to anything, it does give the filmmakers a chance to make a Shining (1980) reference, which is always appreciated. Even the (by now) de rigueur downbeat ending fits the film like a glove, highlighting the extremely arbitrary nature of life: you can do it all right and still get fucked. C’est la vie, eh?
Despite being top-notch entertainment, I’ll freely admit that Would You Rather won’t be for everyone: in specific, if you’re the kind of person who avoids torture films (either psychological or physical) like the plague, you’d probably be best served avoiding Levy’s latest. For those who don’t mind taking a walk on the dark side, however, Would You Rather will probably be right up your alley. Just remember: the next time a filthy-rich plutocrat wants to offer you a hand up, make sure the other hand isn’t holding a knife.