1985's "Clue" is stripped of its giddy absurdist humor and replaced by a deadly, unsparing seriousness in "Would You Rather," a gripping horror-drama that's far more ruminative than "Saw
," but destined to draw a comparison because of its onscreen game of wits and violence. Working from Steffen Schlachtenhaufen's slyly devious screenplay, director David Guy Levy exhibits a smart balance between restraint and forthrightness, showing enough to cause viewers to repeatedly flinch, but never crossing the line into gross-out schlock. Above all, a supreme lack of comfort is the name of the game, the atrocities being forced upon its players cruelly fetishistic and then outright unthinkable. "What did I ever do to you?" one distraught character asks the corrupt head of ceremonies Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) late in the picture. The answer, left unspoken, is nothing at all, and that's precisely why "Would You Rather" grows so rapidly disturbing.
Ever since their parents passed away, the responsible Iris (Brittany Snow) has struggled to take care of her cancer-afflicted teenage brother Raleigh (Logan Miller). Financially stretched thin and in desperate need of help, Iris is approached by Shepard Lambrick, a wealthy medical entrepreneur who invites her to his mansion to participate in a game. The winner will be taken care of and Raleigh will be moved to the front of the bone marrow transplant list. Though suspicious, Iris accepts, joining a group of fellow contestants that include a recovering alcoholic (John Heard), a gambling addict (Robb Wells), a paralyzed elderly lady (June Squibb), an Iraqi war vet (Charlie Hofheimer), and a cutthroat single mother (Sasha Grey). Once the festivities begin, however, there is no escaping, as a game of "Would You Rather" transforms into a fight to be the sole survivor.
February or not, "Would You Rather" is an instant contender for feel-bad movie of the year, but please do not read this as a criticism. The film's unforgiving plot requires that it be dark and downbeat, and director David Guy Levy refuses to pull back from this bleak tone as Iris and at least some of the other players cling to their morality for as long as they can before there is no choice left but to knowingly kill the fellow players. With flight not a possibilitywhen one person tries to get up to leave, they are promptly shot in the headthey must fight to live. In Iris' case, she also has a brother whose life hangs in the balance. Relatively harmless but telling challengesIris gives up her almost lifelong vegetarianism when she is offered $10,000 to eat a steak and foie grassegue to choices between stabbing someone's thigh and beating another three times with a whipping stick, between attempting to survive two minutes underwater and a mystery challenge randomly handed out in envelopes. It's a beyond-frightening situation, but the game isn't just used as shock value and instead takes the time to explore the awful things people are capable of when they seemingly have no other choice.
When "Would You Rather" stays put around its fateful dining room table of terror (which is most of the time), it is nothing short of riveting. When it moves away for a subplot where Iris' guilty doctor (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.)a former survivor of Lambrick's competitiontries to put a stop to the current game, it feels contrived, then pointless, as it goes nowhere. At least these brief scenes are over quickly, paving the way for the immediate dastardly quandary at hand, a committed, emotionally available Brittany Snow (2012's "Pitch Perfect
"), as Iris, and an unforgettably calm, disquieting Jeffrey Combs (2002's "FearDotCom
"), as Lambrick, leading an exceptional ensemble cast who linger like spirits in one's memory even after their lifeless bodies are dragged from the room. No matter who wins the game, the cost of surviving in "Would You Rather" is destined to permeate and pollute their consciousness for as long as they live. In many ways, the victor is destined to suffer the mosta notion hauntingly made all the more certain by an ending that slaps you in the face, and makes sure you feel it.