Seven people wake up in a mansion, their wrists and ankles bound. They free each other from their ropes, expressing their discombobulation and taking in their ornate, exquisitely decorated surroundings. Why would someone go through the trouble of drugging them and tying them up and then letting them wake up so they can introduce themselves to each other? Simon (Cardona) is a cop. Armando (Dagoberto Gama) is a surgeon. Teresa (Adriana Paz) is a stewardess. Jose (Fernando Becerril) is an old man, retired. Esteban (Juan Carlos Remolina) is a very rich businessman and Marta (Verdu) is his very rich wife and Lupe (Carla Adell) is their very rich lawyer daughter. Do they have something in common, besides the fact that they’re quite obviously in a contrived Movie Scenario, and likely PAWNS in a rich person’s DIABOLICAL GAME of some sort? Hmm, I say, hmm.
They break the ice by noticing that Jose has been beaten and his fingernails ripped out. They tortured him, he says. And then a voice booms over a loudspeaker: There are three rules they have to follow: One, they have to choose which one of them will die. Two, the chosen one must agree to die. And three, nobody can volunteer to die. Choose not to participate, and guess what’ll happen? Yep, you’ll die. They have one hour to figure this shit out, or they’ll all die: Siri, set a timer!
At this point, all participants pretty much reveal that they’re raging a-holes. Jose makes a vague confession about having done horrible things. Armando’s profession has allowed him to save countless lives, and he isn’t afraid to be arrogant and braggy about it. He’s also quite judgy when he notices that Teresa is going through withdrawal symptoms, and in so many words says she’s a pathetic human being. Esteban and Marta have 80,000 people in their employ and are VERY important pricks with influential friends, so they think they’re entitled to live. It goes on like this for a minute, and we start to wonder if we’re going to make it through all 90 minutes of the movie in the company of these deeply unpleasant shitheads. Eventually, things progress beyond squibbly-squabbly name-calling and finger-pointing – brains are blown out of a person’s head, doors slide open to reveal crazy rooms full of provocative clues and creepy art, the Evil Voice reveals everyone’s darkest and ugliest secrets, they’re forced to solve puzzles that reveal the common thread among all of them, etc. No spoilers of course, but it almost certainly goes without saying that things get progressively uglier with each new revelation.
Get past the eyeroller plot mechanics, the melodramatic flourishes, the endless expository sniping that passes for dialogue, the occasional burst of unnecessary gore, the miserable po-faced tone – a lot to ask, I know – and you’ll see a movie that’s clearly in thrall with its own locations and set design, which are the object of all manner of nifty camera angles and lighting. Visually, Death’s Roulette is inspired in all the ways the screenplay is not.
But hold on to your pennies, because you’re not going to buy any of these characters or this predicament, not for a second. Where The Platform and Saw stirred some grim fascination in audiences – with putridity within a philosophical thought experiment, and putridity for its own sake, respectively – Death’s Roulette comes off as a third-rate amalgam of many other, better things. (Note of contextual relevance: I didn’t much care for The Platform or Saw either.) Cardona’s film glances off socially relevant subject matter – the corruptive nature of power and wealth, the stigma of addiction, ageism, etc. – but renders its characters as dimbulb stereotypes, and doesn’t go much deeper into the idea that bad people can do good things and good people can do bad things. The movie shows us a few neat things and unloads a couple of twists in our face, and our only response is to yawn, nurse the vague feeling of dissatisfaction you get when you’ve watched a movie that thinks it’s more clever than it actually is, and realize it’s been a while since you’ve seen Verdu yank your heart out in Pan’s Labyrinth. Watch that again instead.