“Torture porn” is rarely this smart

“Torture porn” is rarely this smart

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has us thinking back on other movies about dangerous games, deadly competitions, and blood sports.

Would You Rather (2012)

When Would You Rather crept quietly into theaters and onto VOD earlier this year, plenty of publications (ours included) dismissed it as high-minded torture porn—Saw in fancier digs and duds. But if that shoe fits, it fits loosely: Cutting carefully around some of its most gruesome violence, this blackly comic chamber piece gains its queasy power not from visions of Grand Guignol carnage, but from the drama of desperate individuals forced to make impossible, split-second decisions. The title refers to a game, held annually by a malevolent benefactor (Jeffrey Combs, of Re-Animator fame), in which a group of strangers compete for their lives (and their livelihood) by choosing between various, deeply unpleasant options. Do they administer an electric shock to themselves or the person seated next to them? Do they stab one guest in the leg with an ice pick or opt to flog another with a whip? The winner of this diabolical contest walks away with the financial solution to all his or her problems. But what will it take to make it to the end? Does everyone have a price?

Would You Rather may be as mean-spirited as its antagonist, but it’s also psychologically acute, demonstrating a rare, refreshing commitment—for this genre, anyway—to plausible behavior. (These victims/heroes play the game as any of us might, which makes it much easier to become invested in their fates.) There’s also a sociopolitical dimension to the mayhem: Mr. Lambrick, the aristocratic master of ceremonies, sees his game as a way to pick the worthiest of the needy, weeding out the freeloaders who’ve come to him for a “handout.” As played by Combs, he’s a perversely well-mannered monster, treating the madness at his table with the winking bemusement of a wealthy sportsman. In fact, just about everyone onscreen is superb, with veteran actors like John Heard and Nebraska’s June Squibb further distinguishing the film from the grimy exploitation flicks to which its been compared.  Scenes like the one teased by the poster—razor, meet eyeball—work not as gags for gorehounds, but as showcases for a shockingly committed cast. Can the same be said for any movie starring Jigsaw or his ilk?

Availability: Would You Rather is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and for purchase through the major digital services.

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