I’ve been wanting to write a review about this movie for a while, but I just didn’t have anything substantive to say about it, other than that it pushed a lot of good buttons. I’m a fan of locked-room horror, because it feels almost like a play. It evokes intimacy, then as things get more intense, claustrophobia. I also have a soft spot for adolescent games turned dark, which is why I liked TRUTH OR DIE and will probably love TRUTH OR DARE when it comes out next month.
The cast is also fantastic and varied, with Brittany Snow, horror alum Jeffrey Combs, Robin Lord Taylor, and Enver Gjokaj, plus a number of other familiar faces. Really, in dinner theater, there’s nothing better than bringing together an amazing cast, because even the small parts are given greater intensity.
(Side note: It also has a wonderful, subtle opening credit sequence that I love. Reminds me of the opening credits of MADHOUSE in terms of beauty and CABIN FEVER in terms of slow-burn subtlety—which was about the only thing in the original CABIN FEVER that was slow-burn subtle, by the way.)
On its surface, WOULD YOU RATHER is a simple sadistic tale in a post-SAW gorescape of bringing a group of flawed people into a space and making them torture each other. For WOULD YOU RATHER, though, a smaller budget makes the situations seem much more realistic in scope and execution and less of a spectacle. As gore goes, it’s minimal, playing off implication and imagination rather than showing the blood. Not that it goes easy on you.
The premise: Wealthy patron invites down-on-their-luck individuals for dinner for a chance to win a substantial amount of money. The exact amount is never specified, but it’s suggested that it will take care of all immediate debt and whatever else an individual needs to get back on their feet, and then some.
It doesn’t go well.
The reason I decided to finally write a review is that this small, scrappy little gem takes on a disturbingly relevant tone these days.
Haves versus have nots is an old conflict. Ever since we’ve had an economy, we’ve had wealth disparity and its resultant tension. But as wealth disparity grows and the poorer get blamed for it, that tension’s only going to get worse. As our present administrations continue to cut safety nets and entitlements, as health care costs soar, as student loans continue to burden the generations entering adulthood, as corporations continue to blame millennials for their own lack of wealth that makes the increasingly more expensive markers of adulthood out of reach, as affordable housing and decent food and other staples rise in price against stagnant wages…the tensions continue to escalate. Between the haves and have nots, of course, but also between each subsection of the have nots, because it’s an insidious strategy to pit the have nots against each other in the blame game so they don’t have enough energy to combat the haves. (See: THE HUNGER GAMES. Also: A BUG’S LIFE, which is unexpectedly political.)
And here we have a wealthy, white psychopath and his lazy, spoiled brat rapist son bringing debt-ridden people together to torture each other for their own entertainment…because they know they can. At the very beginning, we see the signs. In the doctor’s office where he courts Snow’s character to the dinner party, he’s eating either peanuts or sunflower seeds on the couch and discarding the shells on the cushion next to him. Not in a bowl, not in an ashtray, not in a tissue, not in a trashcan. He’s in a doctor’s office, discarding his trash on the furniture without any regard to the impact of his actions. We see where he’s put himself in the hierarchy.
The host laughs as he convinces a vegetarian to eat meat for ten thousand dollars. He laughs as he convinces a recovering alcoholic to drink a bottle of scotch for fifty thousand. In a world where one major illness can wipe out everything, where mental and chronic illness can make functioning to production standards impossible, where addicts are entirely blamed for their addictions when one moment of weakness shouldn’t lead to a lifetime of damnation just because of an exploited trick of brain chemistry, where being poor is so goddamn expensive while rich people get free things handed to them on the platter as though they’re lucky cats…blaming have nots for their own circumstances has become more unconscionable, yet the rhetoric seems to have only increased.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a white millennial with the additional privilege of parental wealth. I’m still angry on behalf of friends who get shit on. And frankly, on behalf of total strangers, too. This doesn’t have to be personal and I don’t have to have stakes in the game for me to care.)
But here we have a self-made man who sees a table full of losers, who feels he’s completely entitled to do anything he wants, because he has the money and they want it and are willing to do anything for it. All they have to do is sacrifice everything. And even then, only the winner gets it. All of them will sacrifice everything, but the winner takes all. So you see, friends, if you just work harder… Never mind that luck plays a significant role in the game as well.
Suffice it to say, the movie feels far more allegorical than the first dozen times I saw it. Even the deaths and how each player relates to each other seems more significant. For instance, it doesn’t seem coincidental that the pretty blonde protagonist gets as far as she does.
Don’t get me wrong. She’s a driven young woman. And though she’s hardly the physically strongest person there, quite slight in stature in comparison with everyone but Sasha Grey’s character, the Lambrick Foundation chose her because she’s fighting for someone else, and that sometimes makes a bigger difference than fighting for yourself. Brittany Snow does a fantastic job leading the ensemble with her vulnerability, and it’s worth watching her reach the point where she changes from a scared, passive victim to someone determined to survive.
But it’s still a stunning lesson in privilege, presided over by a man with a Draco Malfoy-like son who thinks he’s superior because he was born into wealth by no effort of his own and, like his father, is bailed out of his own criminal activity, excused for it supposedly because of the trauma of his mother’s death. Yet somehow, he deserves his wealth more, and everyone else in that room deserves to sing for their supper until they die.
It’s a blistering indictment. It really is. When a dinner party turned slaughterhouse is a rich man’s solution for who deserves his charity (which, when it has strings, isn’t charity at all), when compassion doesn’t even enter the conversation, when dire straits are viewed as just deserts and help something you must earn at the cost of your life or someone else’s, something is seriously wrong. The one percent may not be putting people through such individualized, intimate torture, but it is actually a matter of life and death. People are dying. And on their potter’s field headstones, it might as well read: Should have bootstrapped harder.
In that light, easily the most chilling line: “You know, you agreed to be here. You’re basically asking my family for a handout. The least you could do, pig, is show a little fucking respect.”
Beyond the social horror, though, the low-budget torture goes back to the classics. Really, there’s no need for genius, Inquisition-level engineering. The standards are standards for a reason, and the impact isn’t lower because of the utter, beautiful, sadistic simplicity of it all. As the players submit to the deadly game in their own desperation and will to survive, you’ll be asked the same questions. “Would you rather?” stripped down is just “Under the right circumstances, what are you willing to do?” As countless unethical social experiments have shown, we’ll always be horrified by the answer.