Would You Rather – typically a harmless game of immature questions and self-discovery. Would you rather have a rewind button in your life, or a pause button? Would you rather make one new law of your choice or abolish an existing law? Would you rather go back in time and kill Hitler or bring five people back to life of your choosing? These go on for days, but all seem safe, right?
Well, since this is a dark, psychological, “torture porn” thriller, Would You Rather plays anything but nice. Instead of asking harmless questions of hypothetics, writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen and director David Guy Levy have teamed to ask some unfortunately desperate victims questions with actual life and death consequences, creating a sickening scenario of power abuse with the worst of intentions.
Now I know what you’re thinking – just another hack “torture porn” effort which plants some lacking characters in a twisted struggle for survival played up with unnecessary over-the-top gore, but Would You Rather actually surprised me by focusing on a scarily dark story which infiltrates your mind and actually has you invested in most of the character’s outcomes. Films like Vile and Die assemble weak premises with annoying on-screen personalities, but Would You Rather actually finds a way around the typical clichés to present torture in it’s most primitively disturbing nature.
What works here goes against what I usually preach – brutal minimalism. Leave the insanely elaborate contraptions and unbelievable amounts of carnage for big-budget juggernauts like Saw and The Collection. Not every film has to follow in their bloody footsteps, but Would You Rather impressed by being equally as brutal. Someone’s skin ripping off or jaw being torn doesn’t define brutality, and the same goes for egregious gore. What defines brutality is delivery and set-up, which David Guy Levy horrifically understands. You don’t need a swinging pendulum with a chainsaw attached which has electricity surging throughout to torture someone – something as simple as water can be just as effective with the right situational delivery. Seriously, just add water.
Delivery would be wasted with a weaker cast though, keeping us aggressively detached, but again, Would You Rather surprises with a killer cast of actors who you know as “that guy/girl.”
Lead actress Brittany Snow will be recognizable from films like Pitch Perfect, John Tucker Must Die, and Hairspray, but besides that it’s a parade of strong supporting characters I loved seeing in the same room. There’s Enver Gjokaj, who you might remember playing a cop in The Avengers, Crabman from My Name Is Earl (Eddie Steeples), Kevin McCallister’s dad from Home Alone (John Heard), Ricky from Trailer Park Boys (Robb Wells), the crazy blonde kid from Accepted (Robin Taylor), and everyone’s favorite new porn-star turned actress Sasha Grey (Ass Eaters Unanimous 19 – yes, I just wanted to include a ridiculous porn title in my review). Oh, and did I mention Herbert West from Re-Animator plays the villain?
Yes, Jeffrey Combs plays Shepard Lambrick, the aristocratic master of ceremonies in this deviant game. Everything that made Combs such a stand-out character in Re-Animator is on display in his much more mature form, using that confidently egotistical personality this time for extreme evil. See, it’s one thing to make people hurt each other for enjoyment, but Shepard Lambrick takes this demented mentality and exploits his own power in the process. Each victim is so desperate to get the prize money/opportunity by winning Lambrick’s game that they typically let this cloud their decision-making, but it’s even more unsettling knowing Lambrick himself knows this cruelty, and uses such terrible circumstances for his own gross benefit. As pointed out, Lambrick has the ability to help each and every character if he wanted to, throwing around thousands of dollars like pocket change, but would rather put on his own little violent spectacle which he honestly sees as a positive contribution to the lives of those in attendance – even if they die.
Now, of course such a film isn’t without fault, as Would You Rather can’t escape some implausible moments which always seem to hamper “torture porn” flicks. Taking a step back and putting the scenario in a realistic world doesn’t help a story in which a madman has a dinner party at his giant mansion and forces people to kill one another, but this is more a warning to viewers than criticism of the film, although there were some moments not even a focused watcher like myself could get past. From characters seemingly ignoring wounds to irrational thinking, the challenge in making realistic “torture porn” isn’t exactly met to the fullest – but it’s a hell of a lot better than most efforts.
With all that said, I enjoyed Would You Rather immensely more than I thought I would for a weekend On Demand rental. Preparing myself for another slew of wasted innocent lives, I felt Levy’s film rooting itself deeply in my psyche, catching myself angrily reacting to the actions on-screen while cringing at more deadly moments. Who is this man to play God so mercilessly? Who gave him the power to decide someone else’s fate? Kudos to this little independent thrill-fest which has immensely more heart than most the mainstream efforts I’ve seen in theaters so far this year. Given the choice, I’d pick Would You Rather every single time.