Boars On The Floor, Goats In The Cellar
If ever there was a sign that great wealth being inherently immoral as an idea has gone mainstream, it’s Ready Or Not, a bloody attempt to shame the billionaire class. The timing couldn’t be better. Released just as Succession seems to have found a foothold in the national consciousness exploring the moral decay that comes with dynastic fortune, Ready Or Not takes those same ideas and… well, just kind of throws some buckets of blood at them. It’s like Us without the coyness.
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (a former punk band guitarist from Oakland) and Tyler Gillett (who got his start directing comedy shorts), Ready Or Not stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a smoky-eyed bride-to-be marrying into a wealthy family she hasn’t met until the wedding day. The groom, Alex (Mark O’Brien) has done his best to shield her up until now, but today is finally the day and now all that’s left is to just get through it.
At first, Grace doesn’t quite see what the fuss is about. Sure, the Le Domas family lives in a drafty old mansion with dumbwaiters and a “servant’s corridor,” but beyond that, Alex’s brother Daniel (Adam Brody) seems nice and his mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell), seems downright welcoming, ready to bond over what it’s like to marry into this crazy family. At first, that craziness just seems like the usual rich people problems — a pompous patriarch (Henry Czerny), Alex’s drug-addled sister (Melanie Scrofano), a bitchy sister-in-law (Elyse Levesque), a swell of a brother-in-law (Kristian Bruun) and his disapproving human sight gag of an aunt (Nicky Guadagni, in a comically severe wind-swept grey pompadour with dark cartoonish slashes for eyebrows).
It’s only after the wedding that things start to get truly weird. Grace finds out that as part of her initiation to the family, they’ll all gather in the gaming room (“a totally normal room for a house to have” Grace jokes), at the stroke of midnight, when she’ll have to draw a card and play a game. As the heirs to a fortune that began in playing cards, moved into board games, and eventually professional sports teams, games are apparently very important to the Le Domas clan. In fact, the game part is much more important than the actual wedding, explains Alex.
It’s only when Grace draws her card that she finds out just how much Alex has been hiding from her and sets the film down the path of “bloody thriller.” It’s very much wealth inequality meets “let’s play a game.”
The idea that families or individuals who amassed great empires (“dominions,” as Alex jokingly corrects Grace) through bold acquisitiveness and striving would eventually have to pass them to their sheltered, incompetent, possibly inbred offspring has been around since at least the Mongols, when Genghis Khan’s nomadic, rat fur-wearing horsemen conquered half the world and then had to pass down a fractious kingdom to their soft-handed, city-bred offspring. As one rich patriarch put it, “One does not become a general because he is the son of a general.”
In Ready Or Not, with the kind of subtext-made-text typical of horror movies, this kind of wealth isn’t just a poison pill, but a literal pact with dark forces. The question then becomes, how much is Alex complicit in all this solely by birth? And how much choice does he even have in the matter?
Of course, those questions are mostly just the backdrop to Grace running from stuff. If there’s a fault to Ready Or Not‘s concept (with a script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy) it’s that it’s just too on the nose. We learn that Grace was a former foster kid, just to make her an even more perfect foil to Alex’s old-money heir, a detail that doesn’t add much to the overall picture. Likewise, most of the characters never really develop much beyond their initial image, with no dynamic as compelling or creative as Tom and Greg on Succession‘s metrosexual mentor/stoned rube relationship (though to be fair, that took a good three hours of screen time to develop, and Ready Or Not only has about 100 minutes). It’s nice to see Adam Brody and Andie MacDowell, though they don’t seem to have much to do. Guadagni’s Aunt Helene is a great sight gag whose impact diminishes every time she speaks (or shrieks, more accurately).
As great a concept as Ready Or Not is, the writing is a little too “honest to blog” to fully explore it, content to paint Grace as a 2008 Joss Whedon protagonist, where we’re supposed to cheer when she calls a bad guy a titty-fucking ass clown or whatever rather than ponder the bigger issues. It’s fine to make Grace the badass, it’s just that we never learn all that much about her, and so a lot of her “badassness” feels like the rote tropes of kitschy hot girl cool. The image of a bride wearing bandolier, for instance.
Ready Or Not often has enough visual wit to paper over these narrative gaps and keep it entertaining, with a last bit that’s especially inspired, but it’s still a little disappointing, given the strength of the premise. It’s the concept we need right now, with an execution that’s sometimes lacking. Like slaying the rich with a rusty guillotine.