By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 10, 2019
Released Feb. 8, 2013
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 33min
Directed by David Guy Levy
Starring Brittany Snow, Jeffery Combs, Sasha Grey, John Heard
Iris (Snow), struggling financially and desperate to help her very sickly brother, accepts an invitation to a dinner party from wealthy tycoon Shepard Lambrick (Combs) to discuss the possibility of becoming a beneficiary of his charitable foundation. What she doesn’t know is that she will be fighting for her life with 7 others in a deadly game of ‘Would You Rather’, conducted annually for the rich man’s entertainment.
Would You Rather is a tense and grueling examination of the depths of desperation. While not necessarily gory, it is a fairly vicious movie that doesn’t hold back on the consequences of the characters’ decisions or the dark contempt that the host holds for those he views as his lessers.
Narrative: If Would You Rather played Would You Rather, the question might be, ‘Would you rather be a splatterfest with characters being ironically punished for their perceived sins in spectacularly gory ways or be a strait-laced social commentary about American class warfare with an emphasis on uncomfortable realism?’ The movie picks the second choice, and as such, manages to carve out a unique identity for itself, despite being initially dismissed as yet another torture porn piece that, by 2013, was too late to the party. While it would qualify as part of the New Extremity movement that dominated global horror cinema throughout the ’00s, the film favors a simplicity in premise over the elaborate murder machines or often convoluted scenarios found throughout the sprawling Saw franchise and the legion of clones it inspired. There’s eight people desperate for money, four ghastly choices, and one winner – all orchestrated with a showman’s zeal by a wealthy, charismatic, enthusiastic sociopath. While it could have benefited from taking more time to develop supporting characters, thereby becoming somewhat less predictable, there are still enough twists and turns throughout to be thoroughly engrossing, complimenting what is a very solid story, if not particularly successful ending.
“Welcome to my dinner party, everyone! I totally promise there will be absolutely no abhorrent acts of self-harm or bloodshed here at this table tonight and that’s probably a pretty off-putting introduction so, moving along…who wants to play a game?”
Acting: This is Jeffery Combs’ movie – full stop. While already a genre icon from his roles in the Re-Animator trilogy, The Frighteners, From Beyond and more, his performance in Would You Rather is worth seeing by itself. His character, Shepard Lambrick, is a smooth-talking and congenial man of wealth whose blood can turn ice cold without warning. He revels in his secret tradition – this game which he frames as a philosophical examination of the human condition, a proving ground of the most worthy of his resources, and a lark for his cynical amusement. Combs manages to project all these things together in a complex person that seems real, and therefore, effectively chilling. Lead star and co-producer Brittany Snow makes for a sympathetic and convincing protagonist, yet she, like the rest of the cast, is mostly left to emote and react to Combs’ puppet master. However, she, and the rest of the cast, do so sufficiently, but her and Combs are the only with much actual depth (although late veteran actor John Heard has a small yet memorable role too).
Direction: The presentation is not particularly stylish visually. Director David Guy Levy does have a distinct approach to distance – using close-ups on reactions and relevant objects while opting to frame the violence from across the table or room, shifting the emphasis from the visceral to the dramatic. The pacing in Would You Rather is exceptional though – flying through its runtime at a fast clip.
“Maybe if I look at the guy next to me like this, she’ll think he farted instead…”
Horror Elements: Based upon its premise and promo art, it would be fair to believe that this film would be packed full of deliriously gory sequences, and that is simply not the case. While doubtlessly violent, it’s delivered in a very matter-of-fact manner that even backs up or cuts away entirely from the couple of nastier fates that are doled out. It could have perhaps used an all-out squirm-inducing moment to put it over the top, but with a thick and tense atmosphere and fast pace, it’s difficult to complain too much.
Sound: While the score takes a back seat throughout, the opening and closing themes are really enjoyable. Daniel Hunt and Bardi Johannsson deliver a neat ’70s-synth style with rock drums that captures the proper aesthetic – ominous but playful, even slightly evoking a game-show-music vibe in the mix.
TL;DR: Would You Rather is a compelling suspense thriller heavy on timely social commentary yet lighter on horror than one might think at a glance. Given its reliance on more dramatic elements, it could have gone deeper on developing its characters and it has an ending that leaves something to be desired, but still is very much worth watching.