starring Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, Jonny Coyne, Lawrence Gilliard Jr.
screenplay by Steffen Schlachtenhaufen
directed by David Guy Levy
by Bill Chambers Iris (Brittany Snow) is a demure blonde vegetarian with a brother named Raleigh (Logan Miller) who's dying of cancer. These traits, the only things we ever really learn about her, add up to a plucky determination that preordains Iris to be the Final Girl, though it means her character arc hinges on a reversal of expectations that haven't been well established. In any case, mysterious philanthropist Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs, magically transformed into Stuart Wilson from Lethal Weapon 3) spots potential in her and invites her to join the eponymous high-stakes parlour game in David Guy Levy's Would You Rather. Iris is poor as shit, and even if she did get that hostess job she's interviewing for in the opening scene, the money it pays is hardly cancer money, ergo, she takes the bait: the promise of the best, most expensive medical care for her brother should she emerge victorious at Lambrick's next gathering. What she doesn't know is that the alternative to winning isn't as easy as losing.
Deeply annoying is the conversation she has with Raleigh prior to leaving for the party, which she keeps secret from him in a transparent sitcom contrivance. Instead, she tells him that she's meeting an old friend from high school. Ever had a brother or sister? The next question is "Who?" followed by, "What does he/she look like now?" or, "What is he/she doing in town?" It's a reflex, the result of growing up in the shadow of a sibling's social scene. But Raleigh just passively bids her goodbye, and Iris's sisterly bond with him remains an abstract concept at best. That's sadly typical of a sketchy and impatient script that goes from zero to torture porn in a matter of moments; briskly-paced Would You Rather is not, but it is no slow-burn, either.Iris is the last one to arrive at the stately manor hosting the festivities, allowing for one of those murder-mystery introductions whereby the most gregarious person in the room (in this case the wonderful Enver Gjokaj, of "Dollhouse" fame) armchair-psychoanalyzes the other guests for her benefit and ours. Now's as good a time as any to mention that the eclectic cast of potential victims includes the lead Trailer Park Boy, Crabman from "My Name is Earl", About Schmidt's deceased wife, Kevin McAllister's dad, and Sasha Grey. It's a bit like an "SCTV" sketch--if only the actors were playing themselves or their signature roles, although Grey looks as pleased with herself as ever. Seeming the most out of place, John Heard is the first to go, and when I say "go" I mean killed, of course, with the game prematurely escalating from smug Lambrick demonstrating that Iris's vegetarianism is for sale to giving the diners the choice of electrocuting themselves or the person seated next to them. Chivalry plays a large role in the decision-making of the male guests, which is refreshingly quaint until one starts to suspect that a certain bashfulness on the part of (executive producer) Snow--when I think of the actress, I think of her performance in Finding Amanda as the most overdressed hooker in Las Vegas--is exerting an even greater influence over the decision to keep our heroine, at least, relatively pristine.
"Undeniably suspenseful," reads a pullquote from Bilge Ebiri on the cover of Would You Rather's Blu-ray release. Au contraire, I'm here to tell you the film is very deniably suspenseful. What it inspires is morbid curiosity (will that guy actually perform an un chien andalou on his own eyeball?), which isn't the same thing. Blame characters who are at the mercy of an increasingly transparent "Ten Little Indians" conceit and denied their own sob stories so as not to cloud our rooting interest in Iris--there's just no generating tension with these ciphers. Not even Combs is much of a trump card: Although he dials down the crazy in a way that will be perversely captivating to those who mostly know him as Dr. Herbert West (he's constantly shovelling peanuts into his mouth, as if in lieu of chewing the scenery), he's stuck playing one of those horror villains who won't be interesting until sequels and prequels embellish his mythology; so much of his backstory is pointlessly cryptic (the mansion doesn't belong to him, for starters), as though it's being hoarded for later. (He's also saddled with one of those prodigal sons that movie gangsters often have for some reason.) And a subplot lifted wholesale from Misery, featuring Lawrence Gilliard Jr. in the Richard Farnsworth role of thwarted saviour, is not only a travesty of execution too pathetic to laugh at, it also cluelessly sacrifices a black man at the altar of a white woman--maybe the whitest woman, what with a name like Brittany Snow.
Would You Rather is a Frankenstein abomination that mates Dinner for Schmucks with Saw, though I have to admit there's potential here. It would make a cracking episode of "The Twilight Zone", for instance--not that its story drifts into the uncanny, but it is a morality play with a grimly ironic coda begging for one of Rod Serling's soothing summations to shepherd us back to reality, a little bit wiser. Of course, it wouldn't be merely a matter of taking the colour out and pruning the running time: Would You Rather would need significant infusions of wit, taste, and soul before Serling touched this with a ten-foot pole. On the bright side, Daniel Hunt and Bardi Johansson's simple but versatile opening theme sets an enticingly sinister tone, then helps provide the film its only whiff of pathos when it's reprised for a flashback late in the story.
Would You Rather has a videographic finish on IFC Midnight's Blu-ray release; if not for the gore and cussing I'd assume it was produced for SyFy or Chiller. Imagine my surprise when looking up the film's "technical specs" on IMDb and seeing it was shot on 35mm--but, no, the audio commentary confirms they used the Red, thus explaining the drab, purplish skin tones, slightly soft definition, and granular noise. Though it belongs to a grand tradition of scrappy splatter movies, Would You Rather has an ineffable digital chintziness I still can't quite reconcile with my concept of low-budget cinema, despite its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. As a transfer, however, there's probably not much improving it that wouldn't constitute revisionism. Comparatively cinematic, the soundmix introduces space and depth into a claustrophobic film on the disc's 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, while a 2.0 LPCM alternative basically distils the audio to its dialogue, which boasts exceptional clarity either way. Stick with the former if you want those gunshots to really sock you in the gut.
Said yakker, featuring director Levy and screenwriter Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, doesn't exactly inspire confidence when one of them begins by draggily intoning, "All right... Thanks for listening...to...this..." Ellipses, theirs--and they do not...end...there. The odd interesting detail surfaces, like the fact that the restaurant in the prologue belongs to the wife of the actor who played Bubbles (Andre Royo, another executive producer on the film) on "The Wire". (Too bad they shot the scene with long lenses and tight facial close-ups--they could've stacked chairs in the foreground of any spacious interior to much the same effect.) Mostly, they crack the odd deadpan joke, reveal inside references that only the referred-to could appreciate, and breathe and fidget loudly for interminable amounts of downtime. "Inevitable dashes of pretension" include the odd mention of The Shining as a visual touchstone and Levy expressing surprise that no one's ever pointed out the ugliness of the movie's food. Would You Rather's theatrical trailer (in HD) plus a step-frame gallery of unused poster concepts--all of them superior to the Blu-ray key art, and many of them quite striking in their own right--round out the extras. A block of HiDef previews for On the Road, Antiviral, My Amityville Horror, and The Jeffrey Dahmer Files cues up on startup.