I would imagine that as the film Would You Rather? gets more exposure, inevitable comparisons to the Saw franchise will emerge. People might focus on the torture aspects of the films or the sadistic madmen with a morality jones or whatever. I don’t know that this is accurate from a structural or plot level though, as the Saw films tend to focus more on being thrust into the morality questions, the traps whereas Would You Rather has its characters walk in freely, unknowingly. Now I’m not passing any manner of judgement towards the Saw franchise at all, or saying one is better than the other by a long shot, what I’m saying is that the setup in Would You Rather is very different and so I don’t find lumping them in together as being all that valid.
That out of the way, David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather is an interesting thriller/horror film that takes eight unwitting strangers and gives them the chance at fixing their problems by attending a dinner party and winning a game. We’re introduced to this situation via the character Iris (Brittany Snow) and her brother Raleigh, suffering greatly from leukemia. She is trying desperately to find work after moving back to help her brother and not having any luck. She is introduced to, via her brother’s doctor, a wealthy benefactor (the absolutely great Jeffrey Combs) who invites her to the party and the chance to help her brother with a bone marrow transplant and get the both of them out of financial dire straits. It appears she is skeptical and leaves without committing but after getting a call and turned down for a job later that evening, she relents and agrees to go. She lies to her brother about her plans and instead tells him she is going out with friends to ‘blow off some steam.’
Much of the conclusion of the film centers around this little lie, but I won’t say more beyond that. What this extra exposition does is give the viewer a player in the game. I’m not sure if this was the goal, but once Iris gets to the mansion and we meet the other players, we really only have an investment in her. This is partly because we’re not given nearly the depth of ‘origin story’ for the rest of the players and once things go badly, we really only know her and why she is there and thus only really have Iris to root for. Only bits and pieces for the rest of them are shared (financial stress for one, gambling problem for another) so we don’t have much to work with; further, we don’t really know much about Shepard Lambrick (Combs) and his weird butler and screwy son either and aren’t walked through some involved backstory for their family, the foundation, the game or any of that. This is both good and bad – on the one hand, the profound screwed-upness of the choices they will soon have to make stand alone as terrible and striking but on the other hand, some origin of the game (where it started, how many times it was played before this time etc) could have been useful in framing the stakes. Only an allusion to the doctor’s (from the start of the film) past experience with the game gives any sense of history.
They don’t get too far into dinner before the more dark, sinister aspect of what is to come rears its head. The first hints come in the form of Lambrick offering money to a vegetarian to break their commitment, or, goading a former alcoholic with drinking a glass of wine at first and a decanter of scotch for a large sum of money. Lambrick seems to vacillate between dour seriousness and almost maniacal glee over these first two choices and takes the tone of the film firmly by the horns and guides it forward. It reminded me a little bit of Sean Byrne’s brilliant, The Loved Ones, before things go really bad – you know it is going to get worse but not when and so you’re basically in the same position the guests are.
Once the true nature of the game is revealed and the party guests are forced at gunpoint to stay put, things get worse and worse. They are forced to choose between electrocuting themselves or a neighbor the first time around, and in later rounds forced to choose between stabbing a player with an icepick or doling out lashes from a punishment stick. The tail end of the game rounds and increasing drama seem to drift away from a manageable choice and more into inevitable death causing options but I never got the feeling that that was the only purpose. I think it wouldn’t have been a very interesting script if the attendees were brought there against their will and tied down with one central figure doling out the torture. Instead, is the combination of self preservation, fear and also care and concern for others in the party guests that makes the overall story interesting.
I will say that, because of the time spent focusing on Iris in the beginning (and also casting Brittany Snow for the role), we pretty much know somehow or other she’ll be around until the end. I wonder if more time spent fleshing out some of the other party guests would have clouded that up a bit, but, hard to say. What is easy to say, though, is watching Jeffrey Combs’ creepy turn as Shepard Lambrick is a lot of fun. He absolutely owns the character and is a true joy to watch as he dances between civil gentleman and the sadist with effortless ease. All in all, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and was impressed with some of the story choices made, especially at the end.