DVDanger: 'Would You Rather'
Rich people are weird, but not as weird as what people do to be rich
By Richard Whittaker,
9:55AM, Tue. Jul. 16, 2013
If horror films have taught us one thing, it's this: Never, ever, ever have dinner with rich people.
Whether it's psychotic burglars in The Cat and the Canary, sociopathic delusions in The Perfect Host, sauteed brain in Hannibal, home invaders in You're Next, or being turned inside out in Society, canapes with toffs means one thing. Horribleness.
Now, full confession. I was planning to review the Marvel Knights motion comic adaptation of the Wolverine: Origin collection this week. But then I saw a copy of Would You Rather and my first thought was "Huh." So Wolvie waits a week (don't worry, we'll get there), which is better timing for the upcoming The Wolverine anyway.
Because, honestly, we need a little more "huh" cinema.
Would You Rather is a change of pace for director David Guy Levy. He took a critical pummeling for his debut feature, 2011's Flipcam-shot drama A Love Affair of Sorts, and has come back with something a little more conventional, but entertaingly twisted. There's a Twilight Zone-ish twist to the moral as Iris (Brittany Snow) faces her worst instincts. She is invited to a dinner party with a cadre of
character actors strangers, including former porn star Sasha Grey, the ever-recognizable John Heard (the dad from Home Alone and one of the great TV utility performers) plus an awesomely couifferred Eddie Steeples (aka Crabman from My Name is Earl.) And, at the head of the table, Jeffrey Combs at his most greasy and unctious as devious philanthropist Shepard Lambrick.
It's Lambrick as who has invited everyone, and Lambrick who knows what each needs: Money. He will clear the debts for one guest, and set them up for life, but his method for selecting the one lucky winner is deranged, in the way only the wealthy can afford to be. The guests play a game of Would You Rather: The winner walks away with the cash. The losers well, did Lambrick mention that whatever you pick, you have to do? Whatever you pick.
Would You Rather is, pretty obviously, yet another twist on the old trope that the love of money is the root of all evil. It's also not simplistic enough to say that it's just rich people alone who can be perverted by the lure of lucre. As Lambrick seals the doors and ramps up the stakes and the violence, it's a narrative balancing act. Everyone at the table has crossed a line of desperation by agreeing to be at the dinner. There are just three more questions to answer: How much further they will go, what they would sell out, and how much would it cost? In a sealed room narrative, that's the balance of power between the survivors, the greedy and the martyrs.
That's part of what's fun about this little slow crawling chiller, and the instigator is the glorious depraved Lambrick. It's performances like this that make you wish Combs had a chance to work with James Whale or William Castle (there's more than a ghost of Vincent Price in the original House on Haunted Hill here.) Frankly, Michel Foucault would have a field day analyzing his part. The French philosopher was fascinated by the use, abuse and concentration of power. Most importantly, he understood that it is often a phantom, that the many outweigh the few. It is only by outright complicity that people like Lambrick can twist others to their whim.
The real key is that everyone here has the potential to be a villain. Every guest has the potential to maim, mutilate or even kill the other contestants, or even themselves. As Iris, it's Snow's ashen, drained presence that brings the audience along as her uninvited plus one: With a cancer-afflicted brother at home, she has the most to lose if she doesn't win.
Or does she? Levy has fun with the idea that every player has a reason to be there, and is pretty impressively manipulative about that. Just because the audience knows Iris' pain, does that automatically make her the most saintly, or the most worthy?
Snow may be the heroine but of course, due to name recognition, Grey's name makes it above the titles. That's even though her part as the gleefully sadistic Amy is far from the largest role. Yeah, we know why, but let's skip on. Grey has been making a minor stir in her non-porn movie choices. Obviously, there's been a lot of emphasis on her quasi-autobiographical turn in Entourage, and her arthouse debut in The Girlfriend Experience, but she's arguably been more entertaining in mini-budget horrors like this and Herschell Gordon Lewis homage Smash Cut. And, of course, I'm more than a little interested to see her upcoming performance opposite little-known Austin actor Elijah Wood in Fantastic Fest fave Nacho Vigalondo's locally-lensed Open Windows. She's the anti-Iris, and even though her part is small, and she may not have the formal training of some of the rest of the cast, her unstoppable charisma, merged with a toxic vein of sadism, amplifies her value.
It may not be a mass crowd pleaser, but it's cerebral and old-school enough to be elevated above the overused torture porn tag. As Levy and writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen note in the commentary, that was what Grey feared most about the project. Instead, they tone down the actual stabs, shocks and slices. There is a blood, but they turn away from the act of violence. With every flick of a switch or swing of an ice pick, the lens lingers on the face of either the victim or the inflictor of pain. That's far worse than simple gore.
Would You Rather is out now through IFC Midnight on DVD and Blu-Ray. Next week in DVDanger: Marvel Knights Animation presents Wolverine: Origin. No, fer realz this time.