I cannot describe how I feel about David Guy Levy’s feature film, Would You Rather. There are many specific elements that present a strong, well-designed investigation into what could be thought possible by the human psyche, but also a testament in on-screen violence. However, on the other hand, it is burdened with occasionally stiff and lifeless cinematography, bad acting and uneven tone and pacing.
Brittany Snow, who plays the protagonist Iris, is actually the strongest actor in the film. Though she is with stiff, formulaic dialogue and a back-story that would find a safer place in episodes of Guiding Light (which Snow starred in nine episodes), when strong emotional presence and realistic, human reactions to the scenarios of cruelty presented in the film was required, she delivered with great conviction. However, I refuse to believe it was necessarily how her character would react, more along the lines of her personally. The only other decent performances are delivered by Jeffrey Combs (I’ll explain why), and Charlie Hofheimer. Other characters have their moments, but Snow, Combs and Hofheimer deliver the most consistence performances.
Snow plays Iris, a down-on-her-luck big sister of a brother in dire need of a bone marrow transplant. She is struggling with doctor’s bills and the debt left by their recently deceased parents. When Iris is due for a trip to the clinic to see her doctor (played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr. of The Wire and Cecil B. Demented fame) she is presented with an opportunity to resolve all of her debt and find a donor for her brother and ushering him to the front of the line if she would participate in a game the following evening by an eccentric billionaire Lambrick (played by Combs). At the game, a bloody version of ‘would you rather’, it becomes clear the one that wins the game, and the assistance of Lambrick, will be the winner because they’ll be the only one left alive.
Combs has such an over-the-top performance that anyone would consider that his performance was actually detrimental to the overall necessary mood of suspense and tension. His delivery is also more timed for comedy rather than intimidating effect as would be expected of the power dynamic of the situation. However, his screen pretense gives all aforementioned attributes a very sinister tone. His looming figure and posturing makes all of the hokey acting a turn to a form of sadistic psychological torture for the other characters.
Charlie Hofheimer plays the war veteran Travis. And his character is singled out at a later portion of the game to be punished, and the abuse he endures at the end of a whip is quite heavy on the mind’s eye rather than the physical sense. The sounds of the impacts and seeing partial aftermath of the effects leave far more to the imagination to interpret. His performance during this section, questioning Lambrick to why he would subject all of them to this torment, is especially good, out of the great sense of desperation and defeat in his voice. This had reached the character to his limits and he had broken, so it made the scene that much stronger. This was compounded by the subtle and rather well executed build-up of his character from the first moment you see him on screen. I believe this was far more the work of Hofheimer, rather than the direction of Levy or Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s screenplay.
There’s the slight sleazy part satisfied with adult film star Sasha Grey as one of the antagonists of the film, a shiv-happy crazy named Amy, whose husband, we come to find out, drowned her daughter in their bathtub. Her performances in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, Saints Row: The Third and Demarbre’s Smash Cut were pretty good. But here, nothing too special.
As the violence intensifies in the film, the implication increases as well, the more that happens, the less you see. Now, many could say that this could be due to budgetary constraints, however, I feel that this is a subtle art that has been lost on many modern films. The imagination can conjure up something far more horrid than may be presented on screen, which was the technique made famous by film noir and then later horror films. This is not to say that I wouldn’t be a fan of gore, but this would take away from the overall flow of the film. As if it was taking a moment to throw up before talking about Un Chien Andalou, which ironically shares something in common with this film, in that someone has their eye slit open, and it isn’t replaced at the last moment by a dead calf.
The cinematography is a mixed bag as well. There is a consistent tone and presentation throughout the whole form, and with horror films especially, I am very much of the opinion that uniformed cinematography is crucial to preserving mood. Director of Photography Steve Calitri (of Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection) paints an even vision that never challenges. The lighting is even throughout the film… completely even. In several scenes, it was so out of place, that all connectivity with the work was lost. When the film returned to the game room to continue on with each round, the cinematography was superb, it was really strong and balanced, exactly how it needed to be. However, he never took the camera off the tripod for scenes that required it. There was a true lack of kinetic atmosphere and tension when people are running about.
The score is minimalistic, well placed and very effective. The style is very much in the vein of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Krzysztof Penderecki’s work for Kubrick’s The Shining. The final pieces are actually the strongest and lead the most connectivity with the audience.
Overall, this film is part of a horror breed lead primarily by Srđan Spasojević and Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is an attempting sociopolitical jab at those in power, and those born into power, and their twisted definitions of pleasure and excitement. Combs’ Lambrick is very similar in many shades to Sergej Trifunovic’s Vukmir (of A Serbian Film), Aldo Valletti’s President (of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom) and Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho). In that they are all sadistic power players manipulating people about on marionette strings to gory ends.
And though horror film abominations such as Eli Roth’s Hostel or Tom Six’ The Human Centipede attempt to follow in the same trend, Would You Rather comes closer in spirit. It has very strong moments, however the lack of understanding in how to shift moods effectively does become a burden. The writing can be very stiff and hokey, and Schlachtenhaufen shows promise as a thriller and horror writer, and it’s nice to see his primary background in special effects didn’t bleed heavily into this film. This film was a decent attempt, but it didn’t push as far as it could have, but when it was excelling, it was a gripping and fascinating character piece. Many can compare it to Saw and, due to the torture bit, you could say that, but if that comparison is strong grounds, then it could be evenly compared to Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside.
Then the whole thing culminates with an ending that is a real kick in the face. After everything that is experienced, everything these characters go through, the filmmakers tack on an ending that just downright low. Now, it is an effective ending, really driving at the heartstrings but also, it could also be considered a cheap one because it goes for that low blow so sharply, without a lot of character development to back up the reasons why it exists. That is up to personal opinion. I for one believe that it rides on both sides of the fence, and it’s a bit of both.
Written by Matthew Roe