“Regarding tonight’s game, please allow me to alleviate any concerns you have… [I]t is not a quiz nor a trivia contest, nor is it a test of brute strength or athleticism. At it’s core, it’s just a children’s game and I would wager that some of you here this evening have played Would You Rather, at some point. So, how do we play? In each round, each player will be given a choice between A or B. Usually, neither choice is very attractive. …This is where our version of the game is different. Whatever you choose, you must ask upon. …Now, the game continues, one dilemma after another, eliminating players as we go, until we have a winner.
If a player is no longer capable of continuing for any reason, then they are eliminated. …If a player refuses to choose, that is grounds for elimination. And, one more thing: the dilemmas are timed. You must make your decision in 15 seconds or less, or you will be eliminated. …As simple as the game is, it’s all about decision-making in its rawest form. There’s no better window into a person’s character than the decisions that they make, how they make them, and how one applies rationale, and ethics, and reason while under duress. Tonight will test your limits, and ultimately prove whether you deserve our help. If anyone no longer wishes to play… now is the time to leave. We have cars waiting outside.” - Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), Would You Rather (2013)
Having watched the independent horror gem, I can safely answer the leading question in my headline: The hypothetical game is much more fun than turning that hypothetical into a reality; so watching that hypothetical reality is much better than living it. Unless you’re playing with a particularly kind five year-old (are there any?), the dares you would be forced to participate in would range from the disgusting to the deadly, and often both. But it is an enticing game — especially when played with a group of close friends over many imbibations of alcohol — needing no pieces, no boards, nor cards, and your own imagination is your worst enemy. But turn that random night at the bar into a contest that takes itself very literally, with one rich, sadistic host calling all the non-theoretical shots, and you’re going to have a terrible, horrible no good, very bad day. Even if you win.
That’s the central conceit to David Guy Levy’s second feature-length film, Would You Rather, starring Brittany Snow as the Mary Sue and Jeffrey The Re-Animator Combs as the game’s host, as well as the host of the dinner party surrounding it. Because very few people would ever be presented with such mind boggling decisions outside of a horror movies or any of a number of decision-making role playing games, perhaps taking the titular game seriously doesn’t hold much water to some prospective viewers. Maybe Scott Aukerman’s version on his Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast is as high profile as Would You Rather needs to get. But Levy’s production is a new take, one that flirts with torture porn like Saw and Hostel but ultimately concerns itself — as Combs’ host states before the games begin — with the mental anguish that forcing people into life and death decisions would bring, rather than bathing in gore and luxurating in physical pain.
Obviously, it would ruin the fun to spoil the parameters of each round, suffice to say there are four in the movie’s version of the game and each one escalates matters. The first is a relatively simple, relatively harmless choice between your own discomfort or someone else’s — where you are essentially punished for self-sacrifice. The second seems to be about choosing to inflict pain on two more-or-less strangers, but is complicated when the rules don’t quite align with the previous round, as one would expect. The third is all about you and whether you’re a gambler or prefer the sure thing. The final round is exactly what it sounds like, a choice between life and death, but also nothing and everything. The tension from these sequences is less about not knowing what the players will choose, because (thankfuly) unlike some horror stories, they all act fairly logically. Instead, the escalating tension comes from knowing what each player must choose during their turn and agonizing along with them until they eventually act. The gambling round, choosing between a terrible known and unimaginable unknowns, is perhaps the most affecting in this regard.
To accentuate the dilemmas at the bloody heart of Would You Rather, only Brittany Snow’s heroine and Combs’ ostensible villain are given more than cursory character development. Rather than a group of friends caught up in a dangerous situation they don’t understand, this is a group of strangers who owe nothing to one another and know exactly how dangerous their situation is, and some understand quickly what it all means. (Just not quickly enough.) This is an ingenious set up for a movie like this, where we know as much or as little about the players as they themselves share, so when it comes time to make some rather rash decisions the audience reactions and conclusions are mirrored onscreen more than they usually might. I was on the edge of my seat, pulling my hair out, and many other suspenseful cliches that clearly have a basis in fact when horror is effectively executed in a visual manner. I felt like I was playing, too.
Having familiarity with the performers does help orient you a bit, but each one is basically riffing on their own typecasting. Robb Wells from “Trailer Park Boys” just becomes Ricky and Enver Gjokaj from “Dollhouse” is simply Victor; meanwhile there’s Crab Man from “My Name is Earl,” Abe from “Mad Men,” the dad from Home Alone (or the drunk from Sharknado, if you’d rather), and, finally, former non-torture porn star Sasha Grey, whose backstory is wholly unimportant until the penultimate scene. There’s also a sick, elderly, wheelchair-bound woman, who meets the expectations of being a sick, elderly, wheelchair-bound woman. Theoretically, the movie could have been from any of their perspectives, and it’s easy to imagine how those narratives might have played out. Sadly, though, we do have Brittany Snow’s frame story, and while there is some heft to how it shakes out, it might have been even weightier if the reveal hadn’t been heavily foreshadowed in the beginning and we didn’t know anything about her during the course of the movie.
A lack of frame story, then, would have allowed the ultimate winner of Would You Rather’s game to be a mystery until the end, ratcheting the tension up even higher. The only other obvious drawback is a sequence away from Combs’ dinner table, when one of the players attempts to make a timely getaway. Of course, though, they won’t, so it feels mostly like padding to ensure an actual feature-length running time. The filler aspect is strong, especially since there seem to be very few consequences for the detour. But that just proves how enthralling and addictive the game itself is, how badly I wanted to get back watching it play out. How many horror movies make the audience want the victims to run back to the danger and not away from it, and not because of a desire to see an idiot get their comeuppance? That’s where Would You Rather succeeds. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a damn good time if your definition of a “good time” is nail-biting intensity you wish didn’t have to end.
Would You Rather was released late last year in some parts, but more widely this past February. It is now available on DVD/Blu-Ray, as well as to rent on Amazon Prime. If this review doesn’t entice you enough, here’s the trailer…
…as well as a poster:
Or, would you rather this one?
You have 30 seconds. Go…!
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. If he had to, he describe this movie as The Most Dangerous Game meets The Last Supper and Dinner for Schmucks.