June 28, 2019 Play or Die (Movie Review)
Based off the best-selling 2013 French novel Puzzle by Franck Thilliez comes the brand new Horror Thriller Play or Die. Samuel Goldwyn Films deliver this inescapable experience to VOD on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.
While working at a drab convenience store, Lucas (Charley Palmer Rothwell: Legend 2015, Dunkirk 2017) wiles away the hours playing video games. That is until Chloe (Roxane Mesquida: Gossip Girl series, Now Apocalypse series), his estranged lover, returns to his life and urges him to return to Paranoia, a secretive live-action game of thrills that involves puzzle-solving. As the couple fall immediately back into their old patterns, they follow a series of clues to a rave and then onward to an abandoned psychiatric hospital where the ultimate mindbender is about to go down: decode the mystery, be the last one standing, and you will win one-million euros.
Of course, the other players are just as hungry for the win. Split into pairs, the inconspicuous Maxine (Daphné Huynh: Dreamland 2019, Prise au piège series) and Ray (Hippolyte de Poucques in his acting debut), along with blonde Jablowski (Thomas Mustin: Raw 2016, The Royal Exchange 2017) and Goth girl Naomi (Marie Zabukovec: K.O. 2017, Interrail 2018) are prepared to battle their minds against Lucas and Chloe.
The rules of this gigantic escape game are simple: solve a puzzle inside each room to unlock the door and earn a puzzle piece, then move onto the next room. At the end, these collected pieces will reveal the combination that is necessary to exit the hospital to freedom and the grand prize. It might sound simple, but as the game begins Lucas quickly realizes that there’s something seriously wrong with this place, and they will be lucky to get out of this hospital alive!
Clocking in at 89 minutes, Play or Die is a directorial debut for Jacques Kluger, who previously produced the series All Wrong. The film’s screenplay is based off the aforementioned 2013 Thilliez novel, Puzzle, and was written by Kluger with first-time writer Amiel Bartana. It also features the acting talent of Helena Chambon (Au service de la France series), Laetitia Chambon (Metal Hurlant Chronicles series, Traumland 2013), Caroline Donnelly (A Promise 2013, Les Misérables mini-series), Igor van Dessel (Racer and the Jailbird 2017, L’école est finie 2018), Priscilla Adade (A Perfect Plan 2012, The Roommates Party 2015), and Koah Edwards in his acting debut.
Play or Die is a solid entry into the Horror Thriller field, one that will likely excite fans of both 2017’s Escape Room and 2019’s Escape Room. (Yes, those are actually different films.) The premise here is pretty simple: a live-action escape game turns deadly. There’s nothing unique in this aspect, however, there is an ultimate plot twist that makes Play or Die stand apart from its contemporaries. Whether you love the flick or just consider it mediocre is ultimately up to how you digest this twist, and if you feel it properly explains the pandemonium.
As for the acting, certainly it is Rothwell’s Lucas and Mesquida’s Chloe who receive the bulk of the screen-time and provide the most impressive performances. Poor de Poucques (Ray) and Huynh (Maxine) are merely cannon fodder, with Huynh barely even speaking a single line. Mustin’s Jablowski and Kabukovec’s Naomi fair much better, and each give an excellent performance in their middling roles. Though his character is entirely flat with no backstory, Mustin makes his Jablowski a wholly unlikable man who refuses to be a team player. Conversely, Kabukovec’s Naomi does receive a backstory, one that makes her a sympathetic young woman struggling with mental illness. Much in part to this, Kabukovec delivers one emotionally distraught scene that is truly haunting.
Similarly, Mesquida delivers in the somewhat complex role of Chloe, a woman with only minimal backstory but who is clearly neither wholly likable nor entirely villainous. She’s multi-dimensional and real, and Mesquida brings her to life with finesse. This gives the story edge and, perhaps most importantly, her on-screen love/hate chemistry with Rothwell makes them believable as lovers, setting her co-star up for success in his lead role where he truly embraces his character. Lucas is complex, not entirely well-rounded until the very end, but an intelligent man who appears a borderline loner. Clearly games are his life, but when faced with the possibility of losing that life he is the one who shows hesitation. The realistic dimensions of his character draw the viewer into the story, rooting for Lucas’ success—in the game and in love.
With a lovely, delicate score that features Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and belies perfectly the dark imagery and ominous action occurring on screen, Play or Die definitely does not go overboard with gore. Sure, there’s some blood, several really good jump-scares, and one scene that is definitely not going to please any dentophobes, but where other films splash the walls with extraneous gore, this film instead opts for intensity and mood. Which is a win for those who favor the Thriller portion of the Horror Thriller, for sure.
Ultimately, with the start of summer there is always a rush of new films perfectly-suited to thrill and chill and excite movie-goers. Play or Die fits the bill and delivers an enjoyable experience that is certainly worth some popcorn and its run-time. For this, Cryptic Rock give Play or Die 4 of 5 stars.