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Non-Review Review: Ready or Not

“It’s true what they say,” remarks Daniel Le Domas at one point in Ready or Not. “The rich really are different.”

The basic plot of Ready or Not should be familiar. A young woman finds herself welcomed into a wealthy family with an eccentric tradition. After each wedding, the new member of the family is invited to compete against the family in a game. That game can be anything, from tic-tac-toe to checkers. (“I will play the f&!k out of checkers,” Grace playfully boasts when the tradition is revealed.) However, when Grace draws the “hide and seek” card, things quickly take a turn for the macabre. Unlike other games, “hide and seek” is deathly serious. The family plan to hunt Grace down and offer her up as a ritual sacrifice.

What’s on the cards for this evening?

Although Ready or Not brings its own unique perspective to the template, the film is consciously riffing on the classic Most Dangerous Game set-up. Armed with bows-and-arrows, antique firearms and crossbows, the Le Domas family stalk their prey through their decadent mansion as the stakes gradually become clear to Grace. Ready or Not filters this premise through the lens of class and wealth, focusing on economic divide between Grace and her husband’s family. “She’ll never be one of us,” complains Charity Le Domas during the wedding, to her husband Daniel. Daniel responds, “Of course not. She has a soul.”

Ready or Not is pulpy and visceral fun, an engaging and exciting horror-comedy that skillfully blends the two genres in a way that plays to each’s strength. Ready or Not shrewdly positions itself as both a side-splitter and a skull-splitter.

The family that prays together, stays together.

To be fair, Ready or Not is a bit rough at the edges. Directors Matt Bettinelli and Tyler Gillett are perhaps best known for their work on Devil’s Due, alongside television work and work on the V.H.S. anthology series. Bettinelli and Gillett adopt a very rough-and-ready approach to Ready or Not, shooting it in the style of a low-budget modern horror. There’s something very engaging about this no-frills style, which cleverly makes use of a tight cast and a claustrophobic setting to build a sense of mounting dread and dark comedy. However, there are also problems.

This is most obvious in the film’s glum and de-saturated colour palette, which often skews grey or green. There are clever things that can be done with that visual style, particularly in this sort of film. The cold digital cinematography suggests a sterility to the action, which makes sense in the context of the film. After all, the entire premise of Ready or Not hinges on the failure of the Le Domas family to see Grace (or their servants) as human beings. Bodies are thrown in “the goat pit” in the stables. Characters often make what sound like animal noises, snorting like a pig or neighing like a horse.

Grace under pressure.

However, this crisp style is juxtaposed with the film’s heavy reliance on handheld cinematography. Again, this is a creative decision that makes sense on its own terms. Ready or Not is the story of a young woman who finds herself thrown into an absurd situation, and who is left scrambling to survive. As such, it makes sense that Bettinelli and Gillett would shoot a lot of the film handheld, allowing for a visceral intimacy between audience and character, disorienting the viewer as much as the protagonist.

However, the problem lies in reconciling these two extremes. Either Ready or Not is a cold horror story that reflects the anemic detachment of these blue-blooded sociopaths or it is a forceful struggle for survival in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Visually, Ready or Not never seems entirely sure whether it is aligning stylistically with Grace or with the Le Domas family. More than that, both of these choices occasionally make Ready or Not harder to watch. There are points in Ready or Not when Bettinelli and Gillett would have been better served to turn up the lighting, place the camera on a tripod and point it at the action.

The hunt (but not The Hunt) is on.

That said, Ready or Not is great and goofy, fun if you can get on its wavelength. Ready or Not is a horror comedy that plays surprisingly well in both lanes, which is no small accomplishment. It is very difficult to get the balance between these two elements correct; too much horror can sour a comedy, while too much comedy can undercut a horror. The plot’s riff on The Most Dangerous Game is so familiar that it’s practically a cliché, but what elevates Ready or Not is the manner in which it chooses to play that riff.

The “f&!k the rich!” class warfare subtext of Ready or Not would always resonate. After all, there’s a rich history of horror playing with these sorts of ideas – everything from The Exterminating Angel to The People Under the Stairs. However, the film is landing at a unique cultural moment. It isn’t just that the world has fallen into something resembling a warped dynastic oligarchy, as the divide between rich and poor has only deepened. Ready or Not exists in the context of a President of the United States who owned casinos in Atlantic City and the architects of Brexit who to profit on the collapse of Sterling.

‘Til death do us part…

The most striking thing about the present moment is not the sinister machinations of the rich to exploit the poor for their own advantage. It is not the graft, the corruption, the manipulation; these have been a fact of political life for generations. The most shocking thing about the present moment is the incredibly incompetence demonstrated by the architects of these swindles. The push to Brexit in the United Kingdom and the march towards totalitarianism in the United States are almost comically inept. The paradox is that this just makes them all the more horrifying.

Ready or Not captures this intersection of horror and comedy beautifully, repeatedly demonstrating the ineptitude of the villainous one-percenters. Ready or Not stresses that these villains have no actual experience of hunting humans for sport, and no natural aptitude for it either. It has been thirty years since the last time that the family members had to participate in the hunt, and so they stumble awkwardly through the trappings of the ritual. “I have no idea what I’m doing!” laments Emilie Bradley, in between accidentally killing a member of the help and snorting a line of cocaine to centre herself.

Quality father-son time.

Fitch Bradley spends most of the hunt looking up YouTube tutorials about how best to use a crossbow, while his mother-in-law has to remind him not to idly point it at her. At one point, Charity lines up a perfect shot on Grace, only to realise that ritualistic weapons need to account for wind resistance and gravity. Ready or Not suggests that the hunters are just as unprepared for the ensuing chaos as their prey. “I have an 8am tee time!” laments weary patriarch Tony Le Domas, as events spiral rapidly out of control.

More subtle than the wry class commentary is the film’s implicit criticism of the institution of marriage, and the way in which it inevitably represents the devouring of an individual by a larger family. In particular, Ready or Not captures how ominous and terrifying that can seem to somebody who has never had to navigate such a social construct. It isn’t that Grace comes from a poorer background than her husband Alex. After all, nearly everybody on the planet comes from a poorer background than the Le Domas family. Ready or Not makes a point to stress that Grace has never actually had an extended family of her own.

Shock and (in-l)aws.

As such, Ready or Not offers a fascinating feminist criticism of the institution of marriage. In particular, it’s notable how two of the most serious and aggressive participants of the ritual are women who married into the family and who have completely surrendered any external identity apart from that status. Of her life before marriage, Charity snidely remarks, “I’d rather die than go back to that.” For all that matriarch Becky Le Domas sees herself in Grace – “I though you could be the new me!” – she shows no hesitation in stalking her daughter-in-law.

Indeed, there’s something very fascinating in the film’s portrayal of Alex, and his relationship to Grace. One of the central tensions of Ready or Not is the degree to which Grace can rely on Alex, whether his loyalty extends to his wife or to his biological relatives. The film returns repeatedly to the choice that Alex must make between his two families. Ultimately, Ready or Not offers a bleak and nihilistic depiction of narrative as it becomes clear – for a variety of reasons – that Grace cannot ever truly count on anybody but herself.

Ready or Not is the right blend of pulpy and playful, clever and canny. It’s also just great fun.

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