Audiences have shown a benign fascination with films involving torture. Online critics are quick to associate much of this to the SAW franchise – puzzle pictures all centered around a mysterious puppetmaster who puts his players through increasingly gruesome physical ordeals – but methinks it’s probably gone on since legitimate splatter films built an audience throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s. One things for certain: if you’re no cringing or looking away, then you’re possibly drawn into the relentless twists that produce harm, fractures, and bloodflow. And, if that’s your thing, you’d do well to pick up a copy of WOULD YOU RATHER. It may not end up being more than a passing favorite, but you could do worse with 93 minutes, that’s for sure.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Iris (played with curious detachment by Brittany Snow) finds herself desperate to make ends meet when she gives up her college career in order to care back home for her terminally ill brother. Distraught further to learn that she’s no match to his needed blood marrow transplant, she responds to a telephone call from his doctor with a great surprise: a millionaire philanthropist named Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) believes he may be able to offer the young woman an opportunity to see all of her prayers answered. Lambrick asks Iris to join her at his estate for a dinner, where she and others will be appealing to the Lambrick Foundation. The catch: only one of those in dire need can and will be helped.
WOULD YOU RATHER begins much like it sounds, presenting the ultimate ‘what if’ scenario to dinner guests all hoping for assistance. They’ve all been told previously that, after their meal, they’ll be taking part in a game to determine which of them will be the lucky winner, and, on that level, the film tries hard to appeal to even the audience’s benevolence: clearly, this “game” can’t be all that it’s been made out to be, and these guests find themselves essentially in a sadist’s version of ‘truth or dare’ that more likely resembles ‘dare or dare.’ One by one, they’re offered two choices – harm yourself or harm the person on your left (or right) – and, as much as writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen and director David Guy Levy would have you believe they’ve crafted a game of wills, it’s hardly that. Simply put, it can’t be a true game of wills when a player is forced to choose between two truly bad choices.
The story tries to work toward some depth of individual convictions: where it fails is that we’re only truly given Iris’s background – in fact, we’re shown what her life looks like with flashbacks featuring her and her brother – so the other guests at the table never become more than just other guests at the table. There are hints to some of the obstacles they’re possibly facing, but, as the narrative device gives viewers little chance to understand or identify them, they end up being nothing more than hapless victims slowly draining the life from one another. Sure, there may be some nice ensemble chemistry, but, without any emotional attachment to these other players, it ends up feeling a bit flat.
What does work is Combs’ palpable menace. He commands the screen whenever he’s there – having followed his career since the 80’s, I’ve always had some respect for his obvious theatricality. It’s nice to see him getting some material that, despite its weaknesses, truly gives him something to do. As a character, one could argue he’s far more interesting than even Ms. Snow (the obvious lead), but, again, a somewhat hackneyed script never produces much hint of substance as to what’s made the nefarious Mr. Lambrick into the nefarious Mr. Lambrick. Villains without motivation work only in thrillers, but they’re soon lost to memory once it all fades to black.
Lastly, there’s a clever little twist brought up in the film’s closing sequences. From what little I’ve read (in other critiques), it appears to have generated a modest amount of controversy, some claiming it kinda/sorta negates the whole message inherent in what came before it (the twist). I’d argue that that’s far from the case; rather, I see it at instilling yet another lesson to those who “play” with life in the way that these fortunate and unfortunate dinner guests did. It’s far too precious to be reduced to a ‘what if.’ Too bad that’s something the screenwriter missed when he conceived of all this.
WOULD YOU RATHER (2012) is produced by Periscope Entertainment and Social Construct. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group. As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds very solid throughout. As for the special features, there’s an audio commentary track featuring the director and writer along with a poster gallery (???) and the theatrical trailer: it’s a small collection, but it’s there for those inclined to explore the subject matter further.
RECOMMENDED. If I can give you no better reason to see this indie killer/thriller, then it would be to watch the incomparable Jeffrey Combs as the undeniably demented Shepard Lambrick. WOULD YOU RATHER go back and watch him in RE-ANIMATOR? Or what of his spectacularly nuanced work as Weyoun the Vorta on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE? Or how about his wonderful turn on USA Network’s THE 4400? He’s a master of his craft, and, if anything, WOULD YOU RATHER gives him some appropriate scenery to chew as a sadist with a mission: to play a game with the lives of the players truly in the balance. He’s the ultimate ‘dungeon master’ in this contemporary spin on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME – the ringleader in the most bizarre circus you’ll ever see.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group and IFC Films provided me with a DVD copy of WOULD YOU RATHER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.