Every family has their traditions, the little things that they do in order to carry forward to the future the notions of the past. Where things tend to get tricky is when someone marries in. Suddenly it’s not about one family’s traditions, but two. If you’re lucky, personalities click and there’s nothing but wine and roses. If you’re not, it can feel like a slow agonizing ride through Hell. In the case of newlywed Grace (Samara Weaving), it’s a literal case of life or death as her new relatives, the Le Domas, put her through a lethal rendition of hide and seek. Written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready Or Not centers in on what makes any family event uncomfortable and amps it to 11 in a film that eviscerates the affluent and challenges the very notion of tradition, all while featuring a kick-ass protagonist.
Grace is filled with the usual nerves that accompany any nuptials, except hers feel amplified by the fact that her husband-to-be’s family doesn’t seem to like her much. Chalking it up to an 18-month love affair which didn’t allow for much bonding, she and Alex (Mark O’Brien) go through with the pre-wedding events and ceremony without a single hitch. However, just before midnight, Grace and Alex are called to a family meeting where her new father-in-law Tony (Henry Czerny) explains the tradition of playing a game with all the new additions to their family on the night of their wedding. Considered a rite of passage, the gaming magnate explains the history of the tradition as Grace is surrounded by her brother-in-law Daniel (Adam Brody), sister-in-law Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), their respective spouses, and Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni). Where previous games involved chess and checkers, Grace pulls “hide and seek,” a once innocent game which turns deadly quickly. Confused, terrified, and locked in a house with a family she barely knows, Grace has until dawn to avoid notice and evade her in-laws or it’s game over. Permanently.
Ordinarily a review like this one would focus on the direction, narrative themes, set design, the push-pull of tension Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett instill to aching degrees, or some other aspect before working its way to the cast, but, without the cast, Ready Or Not just doesn’t work as well as it does. To begin with, Samara Weaving is an absolutely powerhouse. She’s proven before that she’s a capable genre/character actress as fodder in Ash vs Evil Dead and as hilariously inept in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but Ready Or Not offers her the opportunity to run a gamut of scenarios, each requiring more focus and steel than the last and her ability through either line delivery or physical performance to nail the absurdity of Grace’s situation makes Weaving someone the audience not only roots and feels for, but someone they will actively cheer for. The character is, at her core, a survivor and Weaving never plays her as anything but capable, able to adapt and reason her way through, after a very understandable breakdown, of course. The rest of the cast is equal to the task, but theirs is a harder job than you’d expect. Thematically, Ready Or Not is an absolute takedown of the rich, as well as a commentary on traditions acted upon without contemplation. It would’ve been easy to make the Le Domas family unsympathic, yet the script finds a way to make them as gut-punched about their malevolent actions as Grace is about being hunted. It definitely doesn’t hurt when you have actors like Czerny, Brody, and Andie McDowell in the mix, who each find ways to elevate their individual roles beyond the expected archetypes.
The performances will keep you locked in with a story that is familiar, yet twisted. As mentioned, melding any family is a task due to the baggage everyone brings. When it involves the wealthy, an element of classism comes into play. Wisely, Busick and Murphy’s narrative doesn’t spend much time on the concern as to whether Grace is or is not worthy to marry Alex. That’s a question asked, answered, and placed aside as soon as the game begins. Instead, the notion of class is explored via the rules of the game — who can play, what can be used, and how far it extends. More explicitly, it’s the tradition of the game and the reaction to playing which makes Ready Or Not stand out from other films in the horror/thriller genre. Outside of Grace, the rest seem conflicted about their part in playing, despite being willing to do whatever it takes to win. Though there’s an interesting motive for their behavior, one which toys nicely with genre expectations, the players discuss the game as something to get over with, like a visit to the that relative no one really likes: it’s not something you want to do, but are compelled to anyway. This particular aspect enables the film to play freely, creating opportunities for surprises in a variety of ways. Just make sure you’re paying attention. There’s something truly devilish in the proceedings and they’re found all over the details.
For their part, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett beautifully capture the opulence of the Le Domas household and contrast it wonderfully against the carnage. As things get darker in the narrative, to a degree, the presentation of the house does as well, the cracks growing more visible under the veneer. In this world, prosperity is but a sheen for vulgarity, so it requires the direction to match in kind. This works well in building tension via confinement of visual space, frequently making the audience feel their as tightly closed in as Grace. In other areas, the duo pull back so that we’re a few steps ahead of Grace, building tension through the prolonged sense of terrible anticipation. Impressively, the direction always matches the tone of act, shifting from a controlled view in the first two acts, before getting more loose and free during the mayhem of the third. This does, however, create a drawback as the increasing amount of shaky cam usage does more to detract from understanding the action than it does to build tension.
In the same way Game Night turned table top games into high stakes with heart, Ready Or Not takes the creativity and cleverness of a stealth game and upends it, turning it cruel and vicious. The end result being a film that’s deliciously delightful even when it’s dripping mayhem. Gratefully, Busick and Murphy crafted a story which doesn’t focus on violence as something to be adored, but as an irritating by-product of wealth. It’s a thing which must be done because it has always been done and it’s always been done a certain way. Not to uphold the tradition would be a greater tragedy than the violence itself. Or so the story tells you. Therein lies the best part of Ready Or Not, and it’s the part that makes Grace’s stand against her in-laws so rewarding: are the Le Domas satisfying a rising bloodlust or is there a larger plan at play? You’ll have to play the game to find out.
In theaters beginning August 21st, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.