You’ve never met in-laws like this.
I imagine the pitch to Fox Searchlight for the new horror comedy Ready or Not started somewhere along the lines of that. Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy may have thrown in some talk of a satire of the 1%, a bloody R-rated horror film with potential mainstream appeal, crossbows, and/or a board game-based “dominion.”
Busick and Murphy’s script begins with a wedding. But there isn’t a lot of champagne and doves at this wedding. Looming under the shadow of the Le Domas mansion, Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) are betrothed. Looking on is the Le Domas family, Alex’s lineage. The omnipresent glower of great aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni). The stately demeanor of father Tony (Henry Czerny). The calculating yet warm look of mother Becky (Andie MacDowell). The chagrined looks of brother Daniel (Adam Brody) and his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque). The scattered, uptight pair of sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun) show up late.
After the ceremony, when night falls over the estate, Grace expects to consummate but is instead greeted with a strange family ritual. It is based on a long-standing tradition started by ancestor Victor Le Domas and someone named Lebail (the first image we see in the film is the art design on a game box depicting a devil face and the words “Lebail’s Gambit”). By placing a blank playing card into a box, something spits back the card with the name of a game listed on it. Perhaps the blank card is a feint for a trick box. Perhaps larger forces are dictating the fate of which game is chosen. Whatever it is, Grace has to play along if she wants to impress her new family.
Grace, by her own admission, doesn’t have a family of her own. This is the only backstory we receive about Grace, yet Weaving quickly establishes for us the character’s personality. Grace is happy to be a part of the “Le Domas dominion,” not because of the family’s extreme wealth but because she loves Alex and wants his family to like her.
So of course she can play a little game on her wedding night. Chess, checkers, backgammon. It won’t be that much trouble. Unless the card spits out…oh, it did…Hide and Seek. Grace has to win a game of hide and seek that lasts until dawn. If she doesn’t…well, it will be fatal.
This moment is the first time when Ready or Not kicks into gear. The presence of that playing card illustrates so much. Every character’s face shifts in one way or another, and it is essentially a wordless presentation of what each of their personalities and future motivations will be. It is probably the most well-constructed scene in the film. Given that the remainder of the film is a continued sprint into bloody chaos, that is a for-better-and-worse type of thing.
Busick and Murphy have given directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett a horror comedy script with a whip-snapping wit. It is laugh out loud funny with great characters and surprising, bloody twists. The wealthy-as-ultimate-evil subtext is drawn too squarely, yes, but the comedy that comes from those wealthy characters is effective. And the climactic clusterbomb moment is worth the superficial subtext. It’s silly, but Ready or Not is a fairly silly movie.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett delight in the silly chaos. Ready or Not is violent in bursts, and it relishes in the silly rules of its own game. The Le Domas family arm themselves with medieval-type weapons—a crossbow, a bow and arrows, a battle axe. In most cases, they don’t even know how to properly use these tools of combat. Their fumbling causes more chaos, of course, which just amplifies the hilarity.
But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are not shooting a masterpiece here, either. The pair come from a found footage horror background, having worked on the anthology film V/H/S and the feature Devil’s Due. And that history is felt in Ready or Not. An opening scene that takes place a few decades before the events of the plot is shown in delirious handheld. The camera batters around as it mimics the movements of running children playing in corridors of the mansion.
For a stretch after this, the handheld disappears. One starts to think that the first scene was a fluke. But when the game gets rough, there is a tendency for the directors to switch back to handheld. It isn’t a choice that ruins the movie, and the two directors throw in a couple of interesting devices to mix it up. But there is an undeniable pothole whenever the handheld returns. In one particularly glaring instance, the camera almost loses Weaving as she runs across the frame, because the camera is bobbing so erratically.
The editing, too, confuses the action too much. In one or two key scenes, the shot cuts away too quickly to really get a grasp on what action was occurring during the shot. Context clues fill in the blanks, of course, but it makes for unintentionally jarring scenes.
Regardless, Ready or Not is an exciting and witty addition to the horror comedy genre. This is largely due to the script and the excellent cast. Weaving is the standout; her performance is quietly brilliant. But Brody, MacDowell, Bruun, and Scrofano also entertain with their antics.
Ready or Not: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)