Would You Rather pretends to inquire into the paralyzing existential anxiety felt by those who seek comfort in money, a symptom impeccably diagnosed by the polished surfaces and glistening wide angels of The Game—a film to which writer-director David Guy Levy is obviously indebted. But Levy, unlike David Fincher, punishes his characters as well as his audience with a naughty kid’s glee, delivering a shrill Indiewood torture porn that, despite promised shocks and revulsions, doesn’t even have the conviction to hold its camera on the story’s most appalling twists.
You know the drill: A handful of strangers are invited to the mansion of a smug aristocrat, Lambert (Jeffrey Combs), for dinner—provided they play a “game” before night’s end that promises, with a flash of Lambert’s checkbook, to erase the problems of one “winner.” We enter the story through Iris (Brittany Snow), a twentysomething trying to make ends meet while supporting her brother, whose bone marrow is deteriorating. Iris has doubts about the invitation, but following an unsuccessful application for a waitressing job, she finds herself sipping white wine in Lambert’s drawing room with a gaggle of strangers, befriending Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) and Cal (Eddie Steeples). Throughout, Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s inane faux-intellectual screenplay veers into character-profiling on behalf of the audience, doing what Levy’s images should. “In the corner is Travis; he’s an Iraq vet,” Lucas says as Travis stands eyeballing the room solitarily. “He’s got the 100-yard stare,” affirms Cal.
As the meal winds down, Lambert preambles the game by making another guest, Conway (John Heard), an offer he can’t refuse: to take his first drink after 16 sober years for $50,000. “Everyone has a price,” he says. It’s an intriguing idea, if consistent with the rest of the script’s operatic sadism, and could have easily supported a feature-length plotline in the right hands. The scene devolves into a blue-in-the-face yelling match between Lambert and Conway that ends in gunfire, and for the first time, the guests are thrown into a proper panic; for us, it’s that perilous moment in a film where we realize that we’re watching a screenful of characters dumber and less intuitive than us. By the time a tuxedo-ed waiter wheels out an electrifying apparatus with two different shock collars, there’s still an hour left to Would You Rather.
As Amy, the most misanthropic guest, Sasha Grey gives a performance that suggests she thought this was going to be a porno; she mostly acts with her jaw slack, eyes darting furtively around the dinner table, body coiled in anticipation. She eventually releases tension in diabolical spurts of laughter, egging on Combs’s unctuous host as his games grow increasingly sadistic. Amy’s reasons for participation are never explained, but unlike the others, she seizes on the inherent cruelty of the project at first blush. No deed, good or bad, goes unpunished in Levy’s world; the only metric for salvation is wealth. What this means is that Would You Rather could work as a nasty bit of Roald Dahl-esque satire if it weren’t so hellbent on satisfying genre requirements. By the inevitable “twist” just before the credits, the filmmakers aren’t hamstrung so much as the audience is drawn and quartered.