Ready or Not

(2019) ** R
95 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett. Cast: Samara Weaving, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Adam Brody, Kristian Bruun.

/content/films/5176/1.jpgOn last week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, comedian-host Maher cracked jokes about the death of a public figure, as you do if you’re a late-night host. But punctuating his wisecracks about runaway capitalist Koch, Maher made his subtext text, adding, “I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope the end was painful.” It was angry, honest, understandable, and a bit unseemly. Once could say the same of the horror comedy Ready or Not, which—while coincidentally opening on the same day as Maher’s remarks—revels in the deaths of evil one-percenters.

Earlier this month, citing recent mass shootings, Universal Pictures shelved the comic thriller The Hunt, which riffs on Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by having ultra-rich elites literally prey on working-class people. Ready or Not mashes up “The Most Dangerous Game” with another highly influential short story, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” by imagining a wealthy family protecting themselves and their gaming empire by superstitiously observing a potentially deadly ritual. When someone marries into the Le Domas family, the new family member must draw a card and play the game printed on it.

Parcheesi? Easy breezy. Chess? No mess. But pick the card reading “Ready or Not,” and you’ve been unwittingly enlisted in a game of homicidal Hide and Seek. After marrying Daniel Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), Grace (Samara Weaving) picks the wrong card and obligingly hides in the family manse. Quickly, it becomes apparent to her that her life is at stake, and that she’ll need to kill her new family if she’s to live to see another dawn. As the top-down thinking goes in the Le Domas family, slaying Grace is a necessary evil—the stance of parents Tony and Becky (Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell) and aunt Helene (scenery-chewing Nicky Guadagni)—although some among the younger generation, most notably Daniel’s brother Alex (Adam Brody) and Daniel himself, doubt the necessity of the ritual (the rest of the Le Domases are hapless twits).

Audience sympathies, of course, lie squarely with Grace, who must embrace her inner brute to kill or be killed (the film’s best asset, Weaving expertly runs the emotional gamut). At 95 minutes, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s film aims to move fast enough to avoid allowing the audience much time to question the plotting. But that gambit also results in thin characters (played by a large ensemble, the better to promise many gleeful kills) and thinner satire. Baked into the premise is a statement on amoral capitalism: it’s a dog-eat-dog world, life a game to win or lose, and if innocents need to die while looking out for number one, their deaths qualify as unfortunate but necessary collateral damage. One can find the same line of thinking in David Koch’s business practices, so Maher taking pleasure in Koch’s death mirrors the audience’s desire to see mega-rich baddies get their just desserts.

Call it the new populism, call it tasteless, or call it the canary in the coal mine for the coming class war, but Ready or Not just isn’t all that clever, and its entertainment value uncomfortably rests on bloodthirst for one’s enemies. I suppose that’s not very different from any other predator-prey horror splatterfest, but that’s also part of the problem with Guy Busick & R. Christopher Murphy’s arch screenplay, which—despite the charge of family infighting—winds up feeling bloody impersonal in its blunt-force thrills. Then again, it’s only a movie. Bettinelli-Olpin got his start as a punk rocker: maybe best to think of Ready or Not not as trolling us but as gifting us a mosh pit for primal-scream therapy.

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