Review: 'Ready or Not'

Wednesday, August 21, 2019
A still from 'Ready or Not'.

One Mississippi

2019 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett / Opens in wide release on Aug. 21, 2019

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Anxious bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) has been looking for a family for most of her life. A former foster child with no peers she can count as close friends, she feels like she’s hit the jackpot with fiancée Alex (Mark O’Brien), who is handsome, attentive, and well attuned to her silly, sardonic vibe. After a whirlwind romance of 18 months – what Grace not-so-blushingly calls their “bone-a-thon” – she is ready to get hitched, but Alex insists that the nuptials be performed according to his family’s traditions. That would be the Le Domas family, a glowering, tight-knit clan of WASPs whose fortune was originally built on playing cards, board games, and other amusements. (Imagine Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers as as a proper 21st-century billion-dollar dynasty, complete with ownership of multiple major-league sports franchises.) The down-to-earth Grace regards the Le Domas fortune as more of a millstone than a glittering enticement, a sentiment that Alex – the wary black sheep of the family – wouldn’t dispute. Of course, he still toes the line where family tradition is concerned, reluctantly returning home to hold his wedding on the grounds of the sprawling Le Domas estate.

Even Alex’s regal but approachable mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell) – who was herself once an unwelcome interloper in the Le Domas “dominion” – can’t quite put Grace at ease on her wedding day. The bride longs for a proper family, but perhaps not this one: Alex’s pompous, tightly wound father, Tony (Henry Czerny); his boozing brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), and his icy social-climber wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque); his batty, cokehead sister, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), and her hapless husband, Fitch (Kristian Bruun); and, most menacing of all, his widowed Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), Tony’s gnomish, unsmiling elder sister. The relatively modest outdoor wedding ceremony rushes by in a blur, and it’s only after the knot is tied that Alex sheepishly reveals the most august of the Le Domas’ matrimonial traditions: a midnight game session to officially initiate the new daughter- or son-in-law into the family. Despite Alex’s visible apprehension, Grace chalks this oddball custom up to the eccentricities of the one percent and sportingly plays along.

When the family is gathered around the game table, Tony produces an antique puzzle-box and regales Grace with a hoary Le Domas legend: Great-granddad allegedly struck a hazy deal of some sort with a wandering gambler named Le Bail. The family now honors that pact with a random wedding-night game, selected by a card dispensed from the clockwork box. “I got chess,” explains Charity; “I got Old Maid,” guffaws Fitch. To Grace’s amusement, the card she pulls is Hide and Seek, but no one else is smiling, least of all Alex, who has abruptly gone white as a sheet. Tony explains the straightforward rules of the game – remain inside the mansion, try not to get caught – before Grace dashes off to hide, sensibly removing her wedding pumps along the way. Things quickly turn from ominous to alarming when the family members proceed to arm themselves with an assortment of antique weapons plucked from the game-room walls, including a shotgun, crossbow, and headsman’s axe. Even viewers who haven’t seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – or Run for the Sun (1956) or Bloodlust! (1961) or Hard Target (1993) – will already have some inkling of where this is headed, but it turns out there’s more at stake here than slaking the bloodlust of the ultra-wealthy. The Le Domases are obliged to offer Grace up as a ritual sacrifice to their infernal benefactor or their entire dynasty will collapse by dawn (or so they believe).

Gory, profane, and a hell of a lot more fun than it has any right to be, Ready or Not is co-directed by longtime collaborators Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Best known for their contributions to horror anthologies like V/H/S (2012) and Southbound (2015) – as well as the better-forgotten “Satanic fetus” dud Devil’s Due (2014) – the filmmakers have unquestionably turned out their tightest, most effortlessly enjoyable genre work to date with Ready or Not. As with several other recent survival-horror features, there’s a half-baked satirical streak to the film’s ambitions: The Belko Experiment (2016), Assassination Nation (2018), and Mayhem (2017) (the latter also starring Weaving) all come to mind as comparable late-model films that attempt (and fail) to serve up cutting cultural insights. Fortunately, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett seem to apprehend that their acerbic swipes at the super-elites – Spoiler Alert: Wealth turns people into heartless monsters! – aren’t especially shrewd or original. Accordingly, Ready or Not prefers to lean into the adolescent spectacle of over-the-top carnage, a near-constant barrage of f-bombs, and the bickering, bumbling ineptitude of the Le Domases themselves. (Count Zaroffs, they are not.)

Quite unexpectedly, the feature achieves a dexterous balance between the appalling and absurd that it capably maintains for a lively 95 minutes. Although this results in an ostensible horror film that is rarely outright scary, it does manage to be delectably thrilling and grotesquely funny, often simultaneously. Ready or Not is also distinguished by its ravening enthusiasm to make good on its R rating, without resorting to the sort of pugnacious, boundary-pushing cruelty that characterizes many contemporary horror films, even satires like Cheap Thrills (2014). Indeed, there’s something almost charming about the film’s reliance on old-fashioned splatterstick and vulgarity, which – combined with the convincing faux-35mm look of its digital photography – suggests the unrated special edition of some lost Joe Dante/Stuart Gordon collaboration. Unquestionably, the film’s exploitation-flick subject matter is given a striking Hollywood polish by the jaw-dropping opulence of the De Lomas estate – actually Ontario’s renowned Casa Loma and Parkwood mansions – which cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz saturates in a dense, coppery-orange gloom.

The supporting players range from tolerable to enjoyable, with the veterans the clear standouts: Czerny is always a delight when he’s allowed to go unhinged, while MacDowell lends a familiar, misleading warmth to Becky’s chilling, family-first zealotry. However, Weaving is unquestionably the film’s star attraction, both in billing and in fact. Most familiar to genre fans for her roles in Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-18), The Babysitter (2017) and the aforementioned Mayhem, the actor winningly and emphatically shrugs off any lingering “off-brand Margot Robbie” typecasting with a performance that’s at once B-movie juicy and rousingly authentic. Critically, Weaving, her co-directors, and screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy all refrain from turning Grace into a steely action star once the games begin. The actor plays the hunted bride as a deft blend of frightened victim, dogged survivor, and exasperated heroine in a screwball comedy. Second only to pants-shitting terror, Grace’s prevailing mode is one of furious, sputtering disbelief, as in, “I can’t believe this is happening to me on my goddamn wedding night.” Which perhaps points to her potentially lethal error in judgment: Where money and family are concerned, one should always expect the worst.

Not that the De Lomases are all that threatening as villains. What’s modestly refreshing about Ready or Not’s nefarious clan of devil-worshipping Brahmins is their utter cluelessness. In contrast to the sinister cabals that populate most horror films, the De Lomases are cartoonishly incompetent, stymied at every turn by Grace’s desperate cunning even with all the advantages at their disposal (i.e., numbers, weapons, and familiarity with the mansion’s nooks and crannies). Indeed, except for the bloodthirsty Aunt Helene and the family’s brutish butler, Stevens (John Ralston), the household treats the ritual slaughter of Alex’s new wife as a kind of miserable familial duty. There’s nothing gleefully malevolent about the De Lomas’ cultish traditions; they’re simply paying the Devil his due to protect the family’s staggering wealth and power. This, in its low-key way, might be the film’s most biting and cynical theme: Evil is less about cackling malfeasance than grubby, self-serving pettiness, where the wealthy will gladly lower themselves to hacking up corpses if it means preserving the comforts of the status quo. It’s telling, perhaps, that many of the De Lomases are willing to toss out their hallowed customs – Why rely on Civil War-era weaponry? Why not exploit the estate’s security cameras? – when Grace proves to be a slippery quarry. Decorum, traditions, and allegedly inviolate moral codes are all discarded the moment they become inconvenient to people who have everything to lose.

Rating: B-