Iris (Brittany Snow) is struggling. Between the bills left behind by her late mother and father, and the bills racking up for her brother's medication and while he waits for a kidney transplant, she's stretched as thin as it gets. One day, she drops in to see Dr. Barden (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), her brother's physician, and another man is there with an offer for her. Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) runs the Lambrick Foundation, through which he can offer financial relief to those in need. He invites Iris to a dinner party, where she and a group of other contestants will compete to have their monetary worries wiped away. Upon learning she's been turned down for a position at a local restaurant, she agrees to participate, only to discover that Lambrick's idea of a game is a bloody version of "Would You Rather" with permanent consequences.
Would You Rather simultaneously a good thriller and an underwhelming movie, generating suspense and tension with ease but never really adding up to anything. When the guests are informed what Lambrick has in mind, he tosses out the old logic that nothing tells you more about a person and what they're willing to do when the pressure's on. That's fine and dandy, but that's a beginning, not an end, and Would You Rather doesn't seem to have much more to say than that. Most of the games are suitably twisted and some of the performances are a ton of fun, but I'm pretty skeptical anyone will be shocked to discover that people can be pretty terrible to each other when they don't believe they have a choice.
The best of the film's performances is Combs, who bites into Lambrick with relish. It would be so easy for Lambrick to become obnoxiously erudite, for his politeness to become a clanging joke that brought the movie down, but Combs is the right man for the job. Even when he's presenting himself as a gentleman of refined tastes, there's a wicked twinkle in his eye that makes the character fun to watch as he twists the proverbial knife. John Heard is also fun, going head to head with Combs over his character's sobriety. The rest of the cast, including Snow, Gilliard, Enver Gjokaj, Charlie Hofheimer, Sasha Grey, Eddie Steeples, Robb Wells, June Squibb, Jonny Coyne, and Robin Taylor, all hold their own, despite there not being much in the way of character development or backstory, and Grey having to contend with a stereotypical role.
Story-wise, there's more to appreciate than not. The group does attempt to make a run for it at one point, but writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen is wise enough to stay focused on the movie promised by the premise rather than a chase thriller. The rules of the game are simple: the participant must make a decision within a very short window, or their participation will abruptly end, which cuts down on hand-wringing and begging. The questions themselves are not particularly complicated either -- in one round, the players must choose between a task in an envelope in front of them, or a pre-explained challenge. The way this round plays out is the film's most effective passage, operating at the height of effectiveness for both Schlachtenhaufen's script and David Guy Levy's direction.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and Would You Rather can't quite devise a satisfying one. There's not enough information about the characters, or not enough thematic thrust to the film for a great ending to even be possible, and the ending that Schlachtenhaufen and Levy have settled on is actually the opposite of relevant. If Would You Rather was positioned a little better as a pitch-black comedy, it'd be a little gem in a sea of films that try too hard (I'm looking at you, Sushi Girl). As it is, it's a thriller that does what it says on the package, and nothing more.
Would You Rather arrives on Blu-Ray with a slick, fun, graphic design image of a shattered plate with little photographs on it. It's not revolutionary and there are too many fonts, but it's a step above boxes or floating heads. Just goes to show it doesn't take much to make an attractive looking home video cover. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case (the kind with holes), and no insert.
The Video and AUdio
IFC Midnight's Blu-Ray of Would You Rather is a quintessential example of a recent movie on HD disc. The film was shot on the RED One, meaning this transfer exhibits top-tier fine detail, and struggles a little more with contrast. Black levels are often more gray, and during the fades in the opening credits, banding is quite obnoxious. Thankfully, it is not present elsewhere in the movie. Colors are subdued but appear accurate. "Adequate" is the word: there are pluses and minuses, but no examples of either that are surprising. An English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a little more impressive. Although the crispness of this track can reveal some production limitations (potentially unintentional directionality, "highlighting" of ADR), this is an energetic and exciting track that actually made me jump with an early gag involving a handheld video game. Later, when the characters enter the dining room, there's a particularly ominous note that resonated through my surround sound setup. Although most of the dialogue is low-key and confined to a single room, the clarity with which this track recreates that actual ambience adds to the film's effectiveness. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The one major extra feature is quite underwhelming: an audio commentary with Levy and Schlachtenhaufen. For some reason, theyv'e made the decision to completely eliminate the film audio from this track, which only serves to underline the long, long stretches of dead air in between the duo's very dry comments. After only a few minutes, one will wish Jeffrey Combs or Brittany Snow would step in the room and bring the participants back to life. A poster gallery is also tossed in -- better than a photo gallery, because it's always fun to see creative poster designs, but not much of an extra. An original theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
Thanks to Jeffrey Combs' lively performance and the film's skill at ratcheting up the tension and deftly maneuvering around the kind of tired hijinks that enclosed, indie thrillers often settle for, Would You Rather makes for a solid rental. SKip the extras, though.