Ready Or Not reminds you: In-Laws can be murder!
Warning: There are no specific spoilers, but plot developments are discussed in a way that could lead careful readers to deduce certain outcomes.
The only reason I don't call Ready or Not the "Best Horror Film of the Year!" is that the appellation has lost its luster in recent years after being too often used to designate critically overrated films that turn out to be more hype than horror. The Babadook, The Witch, and Midsommar are not bad movies, but their reputations rest on precious conceits that give pretentious viewers a reason to condescend into the genre swamp just long enough to make a proclamation of greatness regardless of whether the films truly deliver on their ambitions.
Ready or Not is the obverse of this - a film that gleefully embraces its genre trappings without relying on thematic subtext to earn critical kudos. Of course, the subtext is still there; it's just not used as a crutch to prop up the proceedings, because the outrageous narrative and explosions of grue are more than capable of standing on their own. Or to put it another way, Ready or Not is so bloody, funny, scary, hysterical that no one needs to manufacture a rationale for liking it; this is a movie that goes for the guts, capturing you on the most visceral, gripping level - like a good horror film should. Anything more is blood gravy.
Ready Or Not Review: Making a Ridiculous Setup Funny
If you have seen the trailers, you know the setup: Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into the Le Domas family, which made its millions by selling board games after a late paterfamilias had a fateful meeting with a travelling companion on a train ride. Gradually the film reveals that Grace's new in-laws believe this stranger on a train was a Mephistophelian character who demands an occasional sacrifice in exchange for the family's continued wealth and well-being. This takes the form of a ritual in which the new member of the family picks a card to determine a game that will be played. Most are innocuous, but Hide and Seek is a matter of life or death - with Grace struggling to remain hidden until dawn.
The mechanics of the setup are so absurdly contrived that the premise is difficult to take seriously; fortunately, we don't have to, because neither do the filmmakers and the cast. There is an arch tone to the performances - not exactly camp but definitely knowing. Weaving in particular is excellent at registering Grace's incredulity regarding the absurd initiation even while her character goes along with it because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie. As Grace's husband Alex, Mark O'Brien conveys just enough sincerity to make us want to like him even though he has drawn his bride unwittingly into danger. Adam Brody generates sardonic laughter as Alex's alcoholic but supportive brother Daniel, a self-pitying drunk in search of a backbone. Henry Czerny captures the crazed determination of their father, Tony, who is completely committed to preserving the family fortune by any means necessary. Andie MacDowell strikes a note of contrast as Tony's wife, who genuinely likes Grace but only enough to regret having to hunt her.
Ready Or Not Review: Shooting the Right People
Playing along with the cast from behind the scenes, directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin stage the ensuing "most dangerous game" for maximum impact even when that means pushing the limits past the point of seriousness and deep into black humor territory. Thankfully, the script by Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy provides plenty of good reason for why the Le Domas family might not be practiced hunters (it's been a long time since anyone picked the "Hide and Seek" card; the would-be killers are, frankly, incompetent morons, more likely to kill each other than Grace, and much of the fun comes from seeing her turn the tables on her tormentors.
The result is violent and graphic but not disturbing. The body count is reminiscent of Dirty Harry's famous maxim: "There's nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot." In Ready Or Not, all the right people get shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and impaled, and you'll love every minute of it, no apologies required.
Ready Or Not Review: The Blood-Spattered Bride
I know it sounded like I wasn't going to talk about subtext, but what's going on here is so overt that it barely qualifies as "sub." A decadent rich family preserves its wealth by preying on others, the lives of outsiders subordinate to their own survival. And it's not just a matter of genetics: previous spouses, who were lucky enough not to pick the fatal "Hide and Seek" card, are fully on board with protecting their status among the rich and powerful even if that means killing the innocent new bride.*
Part of the film's running joke is that, in order to survive, Grace gradually tears away the wardrobe that designates her as a bride, first kicking off her shoes and latter ripping away her skirt to make it easier to outrun her pursuers. By the end, she is quite literally the Blood-Spattered Bride, her white gown stained red, transforming the former symbol of virginal innocence into a figurative medal of self-reliance and strength, showing that her stature as a survivor has outgrown her need for her new husband, whose love turns out to be a major turning point for the plot, lending some much needed uncertainty about where the ending will lead. (Alex genuinely loves Grace and helps her survive, but his aunt believes he will eventually tow the family line. He seems sincere but also slightly needy, as if Grace is his ticket out of the family. Will he stand by her for her own sake even if she turns out not to be the means of his salvation?)
Ready Or Not Review: Hitting the Target
Every shot fired in Ready Or Not hits the target, but once or twice the film misses the bull's-eye. Too many characters make "surprise" comebacks when they should be at least incapacitated if not dead. An opening prologue gives away the family secret far too soon, undermining the subsequent pre-wedding scenes, in which we, along with Grace, should have been wondering about the strained familial relationships and subtle but ominous hints that something is off with Alex's family. As it stands, we now know that Alex and Daniel are perturbed by the knowledge that they may soon be hunting Grace.
The other slight misfire relates to the ending, which has to settle once and for all whether the Le Domas family's mythology is real: are they all going to die if they do not complete the human sacrifice to appease their demonic benefactor? The payoff is over-the-top in a ghastly, giddy way (think The Fury multiplied half a dozen times), but it slightly robs Grace of the triumph she has earned throughout the film: if she kills everyone (as she deserves to), there would be no Le Domas left alive to face the music when the sun rises the following morning, and we would never know for sure whether the Devil would come to claim his due. (Please note: I'm not saying, one way or the other, that his Satanic Majesty makes an appearance, merely that the film is forced to settle the question rather than letting Grace level everyone's karma before daybreak.)
These nitpicks are just by way of explaining why Ready Or Not gets a 4.5 rating rather than 5 out of 5. The film's aim is not 100% perfect, but even when a shot goes slightly astray it still draws blood - bubbling up in gooey geysers that will leave you screaming with laughter. It is quite literally the best time I have had at a horror movie this year.
Ready Or Not Review: Footnote
- It is interesting to note that Ready Or Not hits theatres shortly after news that Universal Pictures has shelved The Hunt, for fear that its overtly political approach to humans hunting humans might be in poor taste after a mass shooting in El Paso Texas. Since no one has seen The Hunt, it is impossible to comment on it authoritatively, but an early draft of the script cast working-class conservatives as victims hunted by "liberal elites" - a concept that seems woefully out of touch with reality after the El Paso shooter's right-wing white-nationalist manifesto. Ready Or Not is much more clever, never specifically identifying the Le Domas family as rich Republicans interested only in their own security at the expense of innocent victims; the audience is allowed to draw their own conclusions.
Ready Or Not Review: Trailers & Clips
More: Ready Or Not 2019
Ready Or Not Rating
Ready Or Not (Fox Searchlight, August 21, 2019). Directors: Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin. Writers: Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy. 95 mins. Rated R.
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, and Andie MacDowell.