Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cinema File #124: "Would You Rather" Review

I'm sure at some point, most people have played some iteration of the game Would You Rather. Its not even really so much a game most of the time, and more of an intellectual exercise wherein the options in question are usually both very abstract. For instance, on a recent episode of my podcast, our discussion veered towards the question of whether we would rather have sex with Jack or Jill from the titular Adam Sandler film. That specific silliness notwithstanding, its a conversation structure that at its most thought provoking can reveal how a person thinks when faced with having to determine the lesser of two evils. But what if the options weren't so abstract? That's the idea behind the new film Would You Rather, a grim and surprisingly dark thriller that I enjoyed immensely.

The film is set at a dinner party where the guests are all people in search of financial help who have agreed to take part in an eccentric billionaire's annual contest in exchange for a chance at all the money they could ever need, unaware that the game is a decidedly deadly one. It may seem ridiculous to take a game that is probably most often played while stoned and turn it into a serious horror movie, and I have to imagine that the film at least in its marketing is playing off this ironic incongruity, but the first thing you notice about Would You Rather is how it never uses that opportunity to be overly self aware or descend into goofiness. It takes its premise seriously and takes its time to slowly build tension sufficient to make you forget the fun and carefree origins of the game as we know it.

Jeffrey Combs holds court as the sadistic head of a foundation with seemingly infinite resources who delights in pushing people to their limits under the assumption that everyone has a price. Though it might not be saying much considering the last movie I saw him in was Elf Man, its the best Combs performance I've seen in years. He walks a very delicate line, playing a character who delights in using his money to humiliate those less fortunate, while always maintaining a sense of proper decorum and a veneer of professional respect for his victims when in the context of the game. Even as he pits a group of total strangers against each other just to see what makes them tick, and just for his own amusement, you're still left to wonder if its all an act, or if he does at least in some small way value these people.

Once the game begins, much of the film is devoted to an escalating series of challenges where the participants are given the choice of two unpleasant alternatives, knowing that if they fail to choose, they will be instantly shot in the head. These choices sometimes involve the decision of whether to inflict harm upon oneself or the person next to them, allowing for a noble sacrifice, while others involve choosing the degree of pain to oneself or another person. Do you stab your neighbor in the leg, possibly hitting a major artery, or do you whip your other neighbor in an incredibly painful but non lethal way, and how many times would you make this choice to avoid killing one person, as the same man is repeatedly whipped? Though the same action is often repeated multiple times, it never feels repetitive, as each step in the roundtable of moral deliberation allows us to get a deeper glimpse into the characters' psyches, placing the audience into the same position as the villainous host.

If there's one problem I had with the film, it is that sometimes it does go a little overboard with its own nihilism. I know that sounds strange considering you'd think that would be the whole point of the movie, but there are moments that come off as contrived solely to beat us over the head with the lack of hope and the theme of man's inhumanity to man. A minor subplot seemingly promising rescue only exists to reinforce the idea that these characters are stuck there and on their own, and a failed attempt by the contestants to turn the tables on their captors has a similar purpose, but just makes the bad guys look stupid for allowing it to happen in the first place. The end is almost O Henry-esque in its tragic irony, which technically works, but is ultimately a bit too obvious, especially for a movie that was so surprising up to that point.

Even so, Would You Rather is an excellent character study wrapped in a horror thriller package that rises above the absurdity of its origins from the first scene on. In a cinematic landscape where the Saw franchise is the standard for this kind of psychological horror movie, Would You Rather replaces the gore-for-the-sake-of-gore sensibility with a more intricate and engaging exploration of human behavior that more than satisfied this horror fan. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend giving it a chance.

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