Written by: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, and Mark O'Brien
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Fucking rich people!"
Horror history is lined with tales of human sacrifice. You know the story: a (mostly) unwitting, (always) nubile, (often) virginal woman meets her (possible) doom at the hands of a sinister death cult operating just beneath her nose. Sometimes, there might even be goat’s blood involved, and, in some of the better-case scenarios, a dashing man may help her to escape. Regardless, it’s nasty business that we’ve seen a time or two before. What’s fun about Ready or Not is that it tilts this convention on its head by imagining a scenario where the girl isn’t so oblivious. What would it look like if the sacrificial lamb actually knew that she was being hunted down by an absurdly wealthy family looking to prolong their unnaturally affluent life? If this movie is any indication, it looks fucking awesome: Radio Silence (the collective talents involved with V/H/S and Southbound) have crafted a true ripper with Ready or Not, which matches a clever, sardonic wit to this wicked premise and just runs with it. It might be the most fun you could possibly have when rich assholes are involved.
The Le Domas family—who actually prefers to be called “The Le Domas Dominion—has amassed a fortune through gaming, plus some other, more illicit means it prefers to keep secret. The illicit stuff was weird enough to drive away youngest son Alex (Mark O’Brien), who remains estranged from the clan until he meets Grace (Samara Weaving), a nice girl who grew up in foster care longing for a real sense of family. As such, she convinces Alex to return home for their nuptials, which go off mostly without a hitch: sure, there are the usual jitters, and Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) glowers throughout the entire thing, seemingly seething at the very idea of this low-class gold-digger joining the family.
But things get really weird afterwards, when Alex informs Grace of the Le Domas wedding night tradition of playing a game. Per tradition, the bride chooses from a mystery box to determine the evening’s festivities; in most cases, it just involves a harmless game of chess or cards. Grace, however, draws hide-and-seek, and it’s not just the innocent childhood version: no, the family believes this to be a sign that their mysterious, beyond-the-grave benefactor requires a sacrifice. The rules remain simple: Grace must hide within the bowels of the cavernous Le Domas mansion, while the family hunts her down in the hopes of killing her before dawn. If not, something awful will happen to the entire clan.
Ready or Not obviously hinges on its simple but clever premise, and the script pulls off the delicate task of efficiently cutting through its absurdity and grounding it into a story that genuinely resonates. A premise like this almost begs its filmmakers to simply indulge it for all its ridiculous potential; however, Radio Silence nimbly shows just enough restraint in establishing the stakes with some nicely-drawn characters. They also have the good sense to let the performers inject these briskly-sketched characters with enough personality to give this otherwise grim tale an offbeat sense of humor that doubles as an invitation for the audience to laugh along with the macabre proceedings. A lot of the legwork here is done within the first 15 minutes or so, when the film deftly has the audience buy in before the nastiness ensues.
Of course, the nastiness what likely got the audience into the auditorium in the first place, and Ready or Not delivers on this front, too. Armed with crossbows, hunting rifles, and other vintage weapons (to honor a sense of decorum, the family only hunts with weapons their patriarch would have wielded), the Le Domas clan stalks the halls with sinister and reckless intent. Poor maids are caught in the crossfire and callously tossed aside as inevitable casualties, increasing both the film’s carnage and emphasizing its demented mean streak. Grace is quick to retaliate, which results in a back-and-forth game of cat-and-mouse, wherein both sides find themselves as predator or prey at any given exchange.
Ready or Not is light on its feet here: once Grace and the audience realize what the Le Domas clan is up to, the film rollicks as a clever thrill ride full of suspense and gory outbursts. The sharp pacing keeps the audience on edge throughout, as Grace’s ordeal somehow becomes more harrowing as the night rolls on. Scenes naturally dovetail, too, preventing the feeling that this is just a haphazard collection of outlandish twists and turns.
Grace’s long night has her fighting tooth and claw within and without the mansion, where she has to grit her way through multiple encounters with the family, and there’s a nice sense of escalation: this is a film that genuinely feels like it’s building towards something, especially since some of the particulars regarding this bizarre family remain somewhat mysterious throughout. They obliquely discuss them amongst themselves, but the audience is often left wondering about the Le Domas’s pact with the long-dead benefactor. That threat of something awful happening looms over the entire film, leading the audience to a delirious, gore-soaked punchline during the climax. It’s fair to say I was just as invested in seeing terrible, unspoken consequence as much as I was in Grace’s survival.
Not that this is in any way a slight against Samara Weaving, who makes the whole goddamn thing work as Grace, the blood-spattered bride who’s equally aghast and bemused by this wedding night from hell. Weaving is just a tremendous presence who immediately charms with a forthright personality that only becomes more pronounced as Grace endures this long night. Her bubbly, just-happy-to-be-here demeanor quickly dissipates into a weary, can-you-believe-this-shit cynicism. While making her aware of her plight isn’t exactly a revelatory twist to this formula, it’s precisely what gives Ready or Not its crucial, infectious energy.
With her tattered, blood-soaked wedding dress and yellow sneakers, the plucky, resourceful Grace flips convention of this particular tale: not only is she aware of what this family’s intentions, but she’s also not just content to survive. By the end of this ordeal, she’s out for blood herself, and the film’s most indelible image finds her face soaked in blood and rapt with ecstatic relief. She’s one of the most memorable final girls we’ve seen in recent memory, and I’m not sure Ready or Not would even work nearly as well as it does without her.
The same is true of her adversaries, the disgustingly rich Le Domas family. Each member is eccentric in their own way: father Tony (Henry Czerny) is an easily flustered patriarch, while his wife (Andie MacDowell) does her best to keep the family level-headed with a disarming, bless-your-heart southern drawl that eventually borders on something threatening. Melanie Scrofano and on-screen husband Kristian Bruun are out-of-touch kooks; she spends most of the movie fucking up at every turn, while he soon finds himself trying to google his way out of the possible death curse looming over the family. Elyse Levesque is an icily menacing in-law who’s not about to let that curse claim her soul, but her husband Daniel (Adam Brody) wavers in his commitment to the family’s bizarre ritual. Like his brother Alex, he’s seen enough weird shit over the years to make him question the night’s strange events, so he becomes a bit of an x-factor who adds some surprising conflict and drama into the mix.
In addition to Brody—who arguably gives the most nuanced, interesting performance here—Guadagni and John Ralston emerge as the best antagonists. Guadagni’s Aunt Helene is a ball of savage practicality; as we learn more about her own tragic past, we come to realize that she’s internalized some grief and channeled it into pure, unrelenting pragmatism about her family’s unique plight. Ralston is Stevens, the family’s uber-faithful butler, who becomes Grace’s chief rival when she dares to fight back and escape from the mansion. His boot-licking smarminess is a marvelous foil to Grace’s down-to-earth doggedness; in a film that eventually functions as an obvious class warfare allegory, Stevens represents the repulsive endgame of the 1%, who would prefer others to do their actual dirty work if at all possible.
Of course, the Le Domas family is united in their smug contempt for anything beneath them, which makes them the perfect antagonist for our troubled times. If Ready or Not were simply a sharply-directed, supernaturally-tinged riff on "The Most Dangerous Game" set inside a shadowy, candlelit mansion, it’d still be pretty rad; however, the economic gulf between predator and prey—obvious though it may be—adds a vital dimension to the film. No, it doesn’t exactly offer any eloquent, complex insight on this topic. Yes, it’s very much preaching to the choir when it invites the audience to gloat upon the savage deaths of these absurdly rich snobs. I’m not sure either is a bad thing, though: sometimes, you really just need art to act as a mirror to the zeitgeist, even if it takes on the demented, violent form seen here.
Even if the explosive climax and final line leave no doubt that Ready or Not has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, a righteous anger subtly guides the film, helping it to resonate just a bit more. Well, unless you’re one of the rich assholes it’s dragging, in which case I hope you encounter Samara Weaving and/or a familial curse that reduces you to a squishy, bloody pulp.
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