There are some who believe every good horror film needs a twist at the end. I’m not one of them. Play or Die is the perfect example of why, sometimes, it’s better to avoid pulling the rug out from under the audience…
…Hailing from Turkey, Play or Die is the debut film of director Jacques Kluger. Written by Kluger and Amiel Bartana and based off the novel, “Puzzle”, by Franck Thilliez, Play or Die revolves around Lucas (Charley Palmer Rothwell) and Chloe (Roxane Mesquida), a recently broken-up couple of hardcore gamers who get wind of an Escape Room-type experience called Paranoia. With a ton of money on the line and a worthy challenge the icing on the cake, Lucas and Chloe decide to play, soon realizing that losing the game can be deadly.
Coming off like a poor man’s Escape Room, we as the audience are left trying to play catchup throughout the first act, as Play or Die introduces two characters who clearly know a lot about Paranoia and speak of clues as to where the next location will be, yet viewers are largely kept in the dark as to what Paranoia really is. It’s fine to have a little mystery, but motivations as to why Lucas and Chloe are so obsessed with the game are severely lacking, and so it doesn’t help that we know nothing about it. Motivation is something which is inconsistent all throughout Play or Die, and it begins with the cloudy drives of the film’s two main players.
When we first meet Lucas and Chloe, Kluger wastes no time in letting us know that they’re broken up and have a checkered history. Great, so that means a major theme in Play or Die will be about the two working together and learning to come to terms with each other, right? Nope. Instead, the two hook up just moments after their introduction, eliminating any sort of intrigue as to where they will go from here. And I get it, relationships are complicated and most of us have had that ex we just can’t quit, but without anything really driving the two to compete in paranoia like a real need for the money outside of just wanting it, there needs to be some room for growth for the characters, and seeing these two potentially repair their relationship would’ve been perfect. Without that tension, the conflict between Lucas and Chloe is as dull as a game of Candyland.
That happens to be the case for all of the contestants in Play or Die. Once Lucas and Chloe discover the location of Paranoia, they meet a small cast of characters as memorable as pawns on a chess board, who are given maybe one line of dialogue before disappearing into the game, most of them barely seen again…alive, that is. Everyone besides our main couple might as well not even exist, they have such little impact on the plot. Like one of the lesser Saw sequels, these people are nothing but fodder. Kluger wants us to get nice and personal with Lucas and Chloe, which would be great, if we had reason to care more about their story. But, that isn’t the case in Play or Die, and the film greatly suffers by not giving the viewer a fun cast of characters to substitute for the lack of emotional drama.
This is unfortunate, because stylistically, Play or Die actually has a lot going for it. Set in an eerie hospital lit like a haunted house with spooky greens and reds and moderated by a twin pair of unsettling nurses (Laetitia & Helena Chambon), Play or Die is rich with atmosphere. The film may not have the budget of Escape Room or others like it, but Kluger and his crew still managed to pull me in with some inspired set pieces and well-crafted production design. Images like a foreboding arcade machine rising up in an elevator filled with fog set the tone for a strange, entertaining game. We watch as Lucas and Chloe move from room to room, solving elaborate, dangerous puzzles that are inventive, pulse-pounding races against time that grip your heart and give it a good squeeze.
After the halfway mark though, Play or Die loses track of what’s appealing about it in the first place, the puzzles, and replaces them with a mediocre slasher film. Despite plenty of opportunities for unique kills with the traps, most of the deaths in the film, though grisly, are screw-driver related, many of them off-screen, screwing the viewer out of bloody satisfaction. The gore itself is well done, but it feels like such a waste to introduce a variety of creative puzzles, only to have characters meet their end in the simplest ways possible. With a mysterious killer on the loose, knocking out the competition by means of sadistic torture, the fun is completely taken out of Play or Die, devolving into a torture porn film resembling the early 2000s era. Play or Die ends up feeling lost and inconsistent, as if it wants to play two different types of games, but isn’t sure which one to choose.
What really made me want to flip the game board out of frustration is an unnecessary twist that is so random and nonsensical, it feels like cheating. I’m sure it works in the novel, but Play or Die completely avoids any hint as to what’s really going on here, resulting in an ending that comes across as a copout rather than something shocking and game changing. Play or Die has a great set-up and is well-made with a clear visual sense from Kluger, but an inconsistent script is game over before the film even begins.
Play or Die rolls the dice on VOD on July 2nd from Samuel Goldwyn Films.
By Matt Konopka