Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: David Guy Levy
Writer: Steffen Schlachtenhaufen
Producer: Zak Kilberg, Maura Anderson, David Guy Levy
Stars: Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, Jonny Coyne, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Enver Gjokaj, Sasha Grey, John Heard
Eight participants desperate for a change in their lives are forced by a wealthy benefactor to play a deadly game of “Would You Rather.”
If there is such a thing as a “tasteful” way to do torture horror, then “Would You Rather” is it. The plot is little more than a setup to explore the limits of human endurance and moral dilemmas in the face of confronting unimaginable pain.
Desperation drives people to extreme measures, after all. So does the desire/need for money. The two are usually intertwined somehow, and few know this better than Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs). Lambrick is a wealthy philanthropist, although that noun is debatable considering the questionable way he goes about selecting someone to benefit from his depthless pockets. At his stately manor, Lambrick assembles eight people down on their luck and in dire need of a cash windfall for one reason or another. They know that Lambrick has the means to change their lives. What they do not know is how far they will have to go to earn his favor.
Lambrick’s eight “contestants” include alcoholic Conway (John Heard), bad girl Amy (Sasha Grey), and well meaning Iris (Brittany Snow), who simply needs money for the mounting medical bills of her ailing brother. After a few appetizing dares to prove that everyone has a price for compromising their ideals, Lambrick serves up the main course. If the participants want to win the grand prize, they will have to be the last person standing after a game of “Would You Rather.” Except this particular version of the game involves choices that range between extremely deadly and brutally fatal.
Brittany Snow may be first billed, but Jeffrey Combs is the star of the show. Even with most of his performance portrayed while seated at a dining room table, he has more to do here than in any previous role and he completely chews up every last crumb. This is the type of character perfectly suited for Combs’ acting style and it is difficult to conceive of an alternative shortlist of actors who would fit the part as well.
Combs’ aristocratic Lambrick is a mixture of well-bred blue blood and B-movie camp. It is precisely that latter descriptor that prevents the movie from drowning too deeply in its sadistic side. Whether sinisterly munching pistachios while plotting devious dares or sincerely apologizing for his son’s behavior when the rules are broken, Combs keeps the drama balanced and the tension bearable.
His demeanor starts disarmingly enough. It seems he may merely have a mean streak with the way that he casually insults longtime vegetarian Iris after she accepts his meat eating challenge. While she laughs nervously at her surprise behavior and relishes a five-figure payment, Lambrick laughingly undercuts her dignity with the observation, “a lifetime of discipline and commitment to cause wiped away by a mere $10,000.” It is a slow and subtle way to build the mood change about to unfold.
His blackly comic dialogue is just as honest as it is demeaning. He may not be physically imposing, but he commands authority through admonition. It is easy to both laugh and to be reminded of the serious stakes at hand in a scene where he reminds a player, “well obviously participation is no longer voluntary, I believe we just made that perfectly clear.”
Jeffrey Combs is the centerpiece of “Would You Rather,” which is a very good thing for anyone tired of excessive blood and depictions of dismemberment or mutilation in the torture sub-genre. Even though “Would You Rather” fits that classification, its scenes of torture are focused on psychological squirms as opposed to gore. Pain is sold by grimaces on the actors’ faces rather than practical makeup FX.
“Would You Rather” will not convert anyone already tired of the “people forced to hurt others” horror film plotline. Yet it is refreshing that the film is more interested in developing characters and its story than it is in grossing out an audience.
“How far would you go in X situation” is a well-cooked concept. “Would You Rather” still makes it entertaining. The tension is tight without resorting to blood-soaked sights, though the script stumbles with a pair of B plots involving a doctor with a change of heart and Lambrick’s loony son. Neither character goes anywhere important in the story and their appearances often interrupt an otherwise suspenseful flow.
There is no deep moral message here. “Would You Rather” is torture horror, but the presentation is not unashamedly salacious. From John Heard’s small role to Jeffrey Combs’ big one, the actors bring their top game to the script and it pays off with a movie that could have been completely derivative if it were not so devilishly enjoyable.
Review Score: 80