Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Would You Rather: Choosing Not To Choose

I don’t have a lot of patience for movies that have as their premise a bunch of people kidnapped by a psychopath and forced to participate in some kind of game or experiment. A big part of this is that it ends up intersecting a lot with what I actually do for a living, and it’s irritating to me personally when the filmmakers misunderstand the nature of experimentation (or the nature of human behavior). But that’s idiosyncratic to me and not necessarily the biggest problem. If a story’s engaging, it’s easy to overlook nitpicky shit. No, what really bugs me about this type of movie is they often end up being really obvious and didactic about the depths to which humanity will sink when forced into some dire situation. Obvious and didactic are never good looks for a film regardless of genre. If you have to beat your audience over the head with a point - hell, if you even go into it thinking that you need to consciously make a point - you’ve already blown it. But even worse, these movies are rarely as smart as they think they are, because the reality is often just as bad if not worse than what movies can dream up. They think they're making a comment on human nature, but they aren't telling us anything we don't already know.

Would You Rather is sort of an odd duck in that it gets the psychology part more right than most films do, but that strength is repeatedly undermined by multiple narrative and tonal missteps.

We start on a young woman named Iris, who is trying very hard to get a job waiting tables, to what is obviously no avail. They want someone with more experience, he’ll mention her with regard to a hosting position, but no promises. It’s not going to happen. She’s moved back home because her parents have died in an accident, leaving her to deal with their debts, their estate, and her brother, who has leukemia. Iris isn’t a marrow match, so it’s just a waiting game at this point. A waiting game framed by the donor recipient list, unpaid bills, fresh grief, and a ticking clock. She goes to meet with her brother’s doctor, who introduces her to a wealthy philanthropist named Shepard Lambrick. Mr. Lambrick invites Iris to a dinner party, where she will be one of eight people considered for assistance from his family’s foundation - all the money she’ll need to meet her late parent’s debts, and her brother will get moved to the top of the donor list. All she has to do is come to dinner.

Well, come to dinner, and then play a game against the other seven guests.

As you might imagine, the other seven guests are all other people who need the foundation’s help for one thing or another, though it doesn’t bother to elucidate everyone’s reason for being there, which I appreciated - that always feels really stagey, and incomplete information can be a big part of certain types of games. And as you might imagine, the game itself isn’t anything simple or comfortable. Lambrick is your garden-variety rich weirdo who enjoys debasing other people because he has the power to do so. (I am reminded of the reason given in 8mm for why a captain of industry had a snuff film made: “Because I can.”) The game is a high-stakes variant on “Would You Rather?” where people are made to choose between two distinct but equally undesirable options. Here, the options are undesirable enough that people pass out from shock and tarps have to be laid down to deal with blood spatter. It’s not just the grand prize keeping them there, either. Once they commit to the game, the gun-wielding thugs appear to ensure obedience. The game will continue until there is one person left, one way or another.

As I said, the game itself is one of the things that movies like this typically botch, but Would You Rather does well. It’s basically a dilemma game, where you have to decide between two possible outcomes, pitting equally compelling interests against each other. The idea is that your choice illustrates something about your character as a person, a thesis advanced early in a nicely queasy bit of business with two of the contestants during dinner involving personal principles and cold hard cash. Lambrick believes that everyone has their price, and having established that, works to see just how dearly they’ll sell themselves to meet it. The game escalates from simple if unpleasant decisions to hysteric sadism that almost entirely abandons the pretense of the central thesis while still insisting on adherence to the rules, and I found myself simultaneously wincing and nodding appreciatively at every escalation.

But that’s where the skillful execution ends. Movies like this work well when the human factor takes center stage - our failure to behave as rational actors, our willingness to discard higher principles for the sake of survival - but here there's a lot of campy dressing on top of it that undercuts what could be a really tense, devastating story. The wealthy benefactor and his arrogant shit of a son are preening villains pretty much from the start, cartoon characters set among people, and it's distracting. The casual introduction of the game's nature is nicely disturbing, but having two characters who nail every heartless rich psychopath cliché without adding anything deeper cheapens it. If this were a more stylized, campy movie throughout - like a nightmare version of Clue or something - it'd be fine, but arch caricature for the antagonists and low-key (or in the worst cases, utterly wooden) portrayals of the protagonists make it feel like two movies smashed together.

The writing isn't great - the dialogue never sounds completely natural, it's all very stagey to the point of distraction, written by someone with no ear for how people actually talk to each other. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if everything else about the production was equally stagey, but it isn’t. The acting is wildly uneven as well. Although some of the protagonists come across as believable people reacting as you might expect them to in such a strange situation, others never rise above the level of type (the cynical wild card who isn't there to make friends, the gambler, the earnest good guy). Again, it feels like two different movies sitting at the same table, and it’s not clear what sort of mood the filmmakers are trying to establish.

On top of the tonal inconsistencies, the film is also plagued by some puzzling pacing and story decisions. The first couple of acts still manage to build up a nice feeling of tension on the back of the game itself, but then the tension is broken by a couple of completely unnecessary diversions from the main story - the strength of the film is these people in this room, making unthinkable decisions as a timer counts down. Anything that moves us away from that moves us away from what makes it good. For any given story beat, it avoids and embraces obvious resolutions in roughly equal measure, and the whole thing ends on what struck me as an unnecessarily nihilistic note given the implications of what came before - like the whole situation wasn't bad enough, the end just throws on one more fillip as sort of a middle finger. But even then, it wasn't the "last shocking twist" that I was afraid they were going to use, so yay for blowing it in something other than the most obvious way, I guess?

Would You Rather wants to play for real, human stakes and expose us to people suffering under the increasingly suffocating constraints of this game, morally deformed by the crushing weight of need and the power to grant that need. But it also wants to be a campy, lurid, blackly comic EC Comics-style exercise in people getting their just desserts, and the two don't work well together. We're supposed to either delight in someone's punishment or dread it at any given moment, and we're supposed to see them as real people or archetypes, depending on the person. The film has a thesis: You have to commit. Choose one or the other. But it doesn't have the courage of its own convictions.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)


  1. Have you had a chance to watch Cheap Thrills yet? It covers much the same ground as Would You Rather, but (from the perspective of a viewer who has seen CT but not WYR) seems to navigate it more effectively - partly due to the additional plot point of everything being essentially voluntary throughout. I have a lot of Thoughts on Cheap Thrills and would be interested to see your review.

  2. I haven't seen it yet, but it's on my list.