Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2013

Would You Rather

Rather not

'Would You Rather' is more impressive in its commitment than in its execution (or executions)

Would You Rather
IFC Midnight
Director: David Guy Levy
Screenplay: Steffen Schlachtenhaufen
Starring: Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, Jonny Coyne, Enver Gjokaj, Sasha Grey, John Heard, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. and Logan Miller
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

I admire Would You Rather for having the courage of its convictions - much more so than I suspected it would for the first hour - if not so much for its imagination. Or for its understanding of dramatic irony.

It offers a simple premise - a group of people, all desperate in one way or another, is invited to a dinner party at the house of a wealthy potential benefactor. They all seem to need the assistance for medical reasons, typically involving a loved one. At the dinner party, the eight guests of honor are compelled to play a game of Would You Rather, where they are faced with a series of horrifying dilemmas in what amounts to a contest to the death.

It's a nasty little set-up, and director David Guy Levy has a nasty sense of humor about it. It's the nastiness that, in part at least, makes the movie work as well as it can - but it's also helped in no small part by Jeffrey Combs, who infuses the central role of the rich and sadistic Shepard Lambrick with a caricatured air of privilege and cordiality. He reminded me of the Naked Gun 2 version of Robert Goulet, except a murderer. I mean that as the highest compliment.

For a while, I was worried that a particular development with one character was going to undermine the entire thing, but the film surprised me with the way it confronted and disposed of that potential contrivance - the kind of contrivance we're used to seeing manufactured from impossible-to-escape scenarios like this one. In this case, it's used as a well-placed red herring. Ultimately, that's what allows the film to really get down to brass tacks and follow this twisted nightmare through.

But whatever goodwill it earned with its commitment to its idea, it lost with its simple lack of creativity. You'd think with a premise like this one, Levy and screenwriter Steffen Schlachtenhaufen would be able to have some more morbid fun with it. Instead, the quandaries Lambrick and his henchmen devise are, for the most part, rather pedestrian. There's an interesting bit of psychological warfare in the way he establishes and changes the rules of each round, but ultimately you'd expect an enormously wealthy impresario like Lambrick to have more time and imagination to come up with more unique, and more entertaining, ways to kill his guests.

I also question the wisdom of aligning our sympathies, from the very beginning, with just one character. We meet Iris (Brittany Snow) in the opening scenes, and we see her struggling to find work while caring for her younger brother, who's fighting leukemia. It's during a meeting at the doctor's office that she's introduced to Mr. Lambrick and invited to the game, with the promise of an immediate bone marrow transplant for her brother and an endless supply of funds for medical treatment dangling before her eyes. She's informed that only one of the guests will win the prize (though she's unaware of precisely what the implications are), but takes him up on the offer anyway. (Who wouldn't?)

The problem is that Iris making it through to the end of the game is all too predictable, but if she doesn't make it through, then all we're left with is seven strangers to whom we have no substantial connection.

The guests include, among others, the war veteran Travis (Charlie Hofheimer), the recovering alcoholic Conway (John Heard), the gambler Peter (Robb Wells) and the sullen outcast Amy (Sasha Grey). Some of the performances work well enough, though in Grey's case, it turns out that when she's not being utilized with specific purpose by a director like Steven Soderbergh, she's a pretty terrible actress. Here, she seems like she's constantly on the verge of breaking character. There's an awkward near-smirk on her face at all times, and her line deliveries make Steven Seagal look like a natural by comparison. That she gets one of the film's meatier roles is all the more unfortunate.

Would You Rather gets by on curiosity for long enough - even throwing in a bit of wry (if shallow) commentary on capitalism in the process. But it never lives up to its own morbid promise. Too often, this life-or-death incarnation of Would You Rather is simply dull. Perhaps it was that dullness the filmmakers had in mind when they gave us that indefensible cheat of an ending, which has so little of the impact they must have anticipated when they conceived of it, I almost feel sorry for them. Alas, it's the final disappointment in a film that can't quite pull off a most dangerous game.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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