Ah, it’s always good to see Jeffrey Combs, especially in a film of some quality. The busy actor, best known for his iconic work as Dr. Herbert West in three Re-Animator movies, is diabolically front and center in the indie thriller Would You Rather. Combs plays Shepard Lambrick, a decadent moneybags who invites financially strapped folks to a dinner party and then obliges them to join in a competition. The winner gets his or her money problems sorted out. The losers … well, when candidate Iris (Brittany Snow) asks Lambrick what happens if you don’t win, his reply is simply “You don’t win.” Of course, it’s a tad more complicated than that.
The game and the movie’s title take off from the popular children’s thought experiment, wherein the choice is usually “Would you rather do this unpleasant (or gross) thing, or that unpleasant (or gross) thing?” Here, though, the players at the elegant dinner table are surrounded by bulky armed guards (in tuxedos, though; this is a classy environment, after all), and “elimination” from the game means elimination from breathing. Iris is there because she desperately needs money for her brother’s bone-marrow transplant; others in the game have similar hard-luck stories, including a recovering alcoholic (John Heard), an Iraq war vet (Charlie Hofheimer), and a gambler (Robb Wells).
Early on, Lambrick offers the alcoholic, who’s been dry for sixteen hard years, $50,000 if he finishes a snifter of brandy. Lambrick also waves $10,000 at vegetarian Iris and coaxes her to eat steak. He’s just warming up; the real plates on the menu include electrocution, stabbing, whipping, drowning, and self-mutilation. To his credit, director David Guy Levy doesn’t rub our faces in gore — most of the harsh stuff goes down off-camera. This isn’t a blood-soaked charnel-house mind-game like the Saw flicks; it leans more towards psychological violence. Most of it unfolds around the dinner table, in the fine tradition of “bottle episodes” on TV or low-budget filmmaking.
Would You Rather is a minor compelling entry in the subgenre of puppetmaster thought-experiment thrillers (another recent one was Compliance, based on a true story), and the actors have all been coached to keep their voices down; there’s little irritating hysteria, just ordinary people trying to stay in the game. Except for Iris, we don’t learn much about why the contestants have wound up in desperate straits, though there are teasing hints here and there. We root for Iris by default because we know what’s at stake for her, and Snow does a fair job of not squandering our inherent sympathy for Iris; she makes Iris a decent person, not insufferably so.
But if you’ve read this to the end it’s because I didn’t bury the lede: Jeffrey Combs is pretty much the reason to see this (or just about any) film. Combs knows how to be overtly creepy, but he’s done that in so many roles he no longer needs to make a big show of it. His Shepard Lambrick is quietly reasonable within the insane context Lambrick has created. Lambrick has more money than he knows what to do with, and he enjoys spending it by putting people to the test. Combs brings out Lambrick’s one-percenter vibe by making it seem that his little game is simply undiluted capitalism: If you’re better than anyone else at doing terrible things, you get the grand prize. Combs presides over this financial morality play with spirit and wit, a dry sense of self-amusement. He deserves to be far better known and appreciated outside of horror-fan circles.