“Would You Rather”: The Grisly Burden of Choice
Published on February 6th, 2013 | by James T. Sheridan0
“Would You Rather” opens Friday, February 8 at IFC Center.
Running time: 93 minutes; 2012; Not Rated
Directed by David Guy Levy
David Guy Levy’s new film “Would You Rather” re-imagines a party game as a life or death struggle, mixing torture with psychology in a film mixing “Clue” and “Saw.” The mysterious Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs, “Re-Animator”) invites eight strangers to a dinner sponsored by his charity organization. Iris (Brittany Snow, “Pitch Perfect”) cannot find a job, struggles with the care of her ailing brother, and in a desperate attempt to solve her financial problems, finds herself caught in the machinations of the millionaire’s elaborate game. If Iris wins the game, the Lambrick Foundation will give her the money to find a bone marrow donor. So Iris arrives at dinner at Lambrick’s mansion, and after the food is served, armed guards surround the table. An increasingly violent set of choices is presented to each guest. Would you rather hurt the person to your left or to your right? Would you rather use this weapon or that one? Does the person’s age, gender, or demeanor matter when your own pain is part of the equation? Shepard starts the brief timer, and to stay in the game, each person must choose.
“Would You Rather” is claustrophobic in its small scale and as precise as a well-crafted short story, but it may have worked better as a short film than as a feature. The film cannot sustain its suspenseful premise and fails to frighten. There is much to like, though. Cinematographer Steve Calitri’s camera zooms in slowly, framing the guests and focusing on the dark wood paneling of the elegant dining room. Levy builds suspense as the film roots itself in a believable mythology with dark consequences. Snow has the most screen time and conveys Iris’s anguish and guilt through her cowering movements. Iris is worn out before even sitting at the table, and Snow captures that weariness despite being given very little to say or do. Combs delights as Shepard, offering strange vocal inflections and gestures, as well as bizarre decorum to the baroque challenges. The supporting cast, which includes John Heard, Jonny Coyne, and Sasha Grey, is promising but underused. In terms of gore, Levy leaves much to the imagination, preferring to let the audience hear the acts and not see the action.
Part of the film’s conceit is placing the audience at the table with the guests, curious and horrified over the next round of choices. As a result, there are surprises but little context. Levy builds momentum through many narrative strands over the course of the film, but then dispatches them quickly and in unsatisfying ways. Characters begin disappearing before we learn their names, and histories are reduced to one or two details at most. The lack of attachment between the characters weakens the film. The eight character types at the table have little opportunity to distinguish themselves or explain how they were drawn to the table. By failing to establish them forcefully, Levy keeps the stakes low for all but Iris, and the final challenges lose their meditative power and instead become perfunctory acts. All of this adds up to a nihilistic tone, leaving the audience with the distinct feeling of being pranked in the final shot.
As a horror film, “Would You Rather” raises far more questions than it answers, and its unsatisfying qualities detract from its power. As a psychological experiment about self-interest, the film struggles with its plot and dialogue. It ultimately seems mundane and far too self-important.