Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Family That Plays Together...

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (2019)

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Ready or Not (2019, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) hit theaters a mere week after the similarly themed Blumhouse/Universal film, The Hunt, was pulled from release after whining from conservatives about "coastal elites" hunting red-state salt of the earth for sport*. Ready or Not punks this in hilarious ways. Mind you, I haven't seen The Hunt, but from the trailer, I get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's a certain amount of misinterpretation going on here. The trope of the rich hunting the poor for sport is not new. There are plenty of pulp novels that use this plot and there are rip-offs of The Most Dangerous Game without number. Hell, one of the films that came out at the start of 2019, Escape Room, used this trope, too. Moreover, the dichotomy between hunter and hunted has never been about liberal versus conservative, so much as it has been haves versus have nots. There's a core of Marxist critique of a murderous, decadent aristocracy in this trope that cannot be erased no matter how much you try, and it's amplified by appearing in an era of unrestrained billionaire plutocrats. There's a line in John Woo's Hard Target that makes all of this explicit when Lance Henricksen's hunting guide explains to a client that "It has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many." Ready or Not is very much coded along these lines. It's lucky in its timing because it fills a void that might otherwise not have existed.

The story picks up at the wedding of Grace and Alex. Alex is the wayward son of the Le Domas family, who made their fortune in gaming. Grace, for her part, has never had much of a family of her own, having been shuttled from foster parents to foster parents as a child, but she looks forward to becoming part of Alex's family. Some of Alex's family are chilly toward her, seeing her as a gold-digger, but others are kinder. Alex's mother takes a shine to Grace, having been the same kind of outsider herself when she married into the family. Things begin to go awry the night of the wedding, though. The Le Domases, having made their money with games, have a tradition: the new addition to their family picks a card from a box gifted to the founder of the family's business, and the family plays whatever game the card suggests. The newcomer must play, too. Grace draws "Hide and Seek," which for the Le Domases, is a more intense game than what most children probably played, because "Hide and Seek" involves them hunting down the person who is "it" and ultimately killing them in a ritual sacrifice. Grace, knows none of this when the game starts, but she finds out soon enough. The Le Domas's, fortunately, are fairly inept hunters, and Grace is helped by Alex, who tries to get her out of the mansion. But things don't go to plan for either side. Grace ultimately has to rely on her own wits, though she gets help from unexpected sources...

This is a lean pulp story that's carried along by a surprisingly excellent cast. Grace is played by Samara Weaving, who is an appealing heroine, and the Le Domas are played by the likes of Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Nicky Guadigni, and Melanie Scrofano. Czerny and Scrofano are standouts among the villains, Czerny because he's one of those "that guy" actors who is given a chance to shine as the head patriarchal villain, and Scrofano because her coked-out and hilariously inept Emilie is a stark contrast to her Wynonna Earp character from TV. Both Mark O'Brien and Adam Brody are good as Grace's new husband and his brother, too. But this is a staring role for Weaving and the filmmakers code this with the way the film is lit and costumed. This is a gloomy film, set in a darkened mansion that's all browns and sepias, and all the Le Domas are dressed in dark colors. Grace, with her blond hair and her wedding dress is positively incandescent when set in front of this. It doesn't hurt that Weaving herself is gorgeous and likeable. The audience is on her side from the start and she never loses them.

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (2019)

I don't want to give Ready or Not more weight than it deserves. This is not a horror masterpiece. It has major flaws. While I understand the metaphorical darkness the design of the film is exploring, I think the film is either under-lit or just badly lit. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz might have done well to study the great Gordon Willis--"The Prince of Darkness"--for a masterclass in how to accomplish what this film fails to accomplish. From a structural standpoint, this is kit-bashed from a bunch of familiar horror traditions and it holds no real surprises for an audience who has seen a few horror movies. It doesn't try to invent the wheel, and it succeeds in this to a point where its plot mechanisms sometimes seem tedious. But that's genre for you. A viewer who craves something "original," probably shouldn't spend too much time poking around in the horror genre in the first place. Ready or Not does manage to get a few laughs out of its ghastly denouement, though, which is timed not so much to shock as to provide a punch line. There are satisfying horror beats in this, particularly Grace's experience in the goat pit where the Le Domases dump their victims. This doesn't shy away from gore at all, and a gorehound will find a lot to satisfy them here. Certainly, the various "accidents" that take out the help are well conceived gore gags, particularly the girl who gets a crossbow bolt through the mouth, and the disposal of her body. The body count here is satisfyingly high and a viewer in it for the kills will dig it. But this is never really scary or disturbing, which is a flaw in a film that is conceived of as a horror movie.

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (2019)

Like I say, this isn't a masterpiece, but it doesn't really need to be one. In some ways, Ready or Not works better as a satire than as a horror movie, though those two things have never been mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various kinds of depravity assigned to the rich villains provide a gallery of sins. I mentioned that the core of The Most Dangerous Game plot is Marxist, and I think that's doubly true of this film. This is a film where the help is disposable, but in which they are also gaslit into supporting the depredations of their employers even at the cost of their own lives. The kernel of this is that the rich are okay with every kind of atrocity so long as that deal with the devil preserves their privilege. The film is good about showing how this impulse deranges them, too, particularly the two characters--Alex and Daniel--who want no part of it, but who see no escape from it either. The film even says that the rich are "different" out loud. The film is a sly critique of marriage as an institution, too, which as a historical instrument has been used to transmit wealth and preserve fortunes. Marriage for love throws a monkey wrench into this. The film offers a contrast here between Grace, who marries for love, and Charity Le Domas, who married into the family for money, and who is into whatever preserves the advantages her marriage bought for her. Grace may have craved marriage--Alex asks her to marry him even though he knows what that entails because the alternative was her walking away--but she is not so obtuse about it that she doesn't get an education by the end of the film. Her illusions don't last the night.

Ready or Not is ultimately in the tradition of the radical horror movies descended from Night of the Living Dead. It's a film where, contra the prevailing trends in commercial horror movies where preserving the integrity of the nuclear family is the be all and end all, it's the family unit itself that is the source of horror, and where institutions like capitalism and marriage are found to be rotten to the core. It's a film about liberation, too, given where it takes Grace at the end of the film (by the way, her name is one of the film's more obvious symbols). Like the radical horror movies of yore, Ready or Not's solution is to burn it all to the ground. The institutions it finds wanting deserve everything they get in this film, and while many films who reach the same conclusions are among the genre's most disquieting films, this film exults in letting the dragons into Eden to trash the place. Grace's last word on the matter is a bitter chocolate-covered cherry on top.

*Note: I am aware of the fact that the stated reason for this is sensitivity over recent mass shootings, but given the frequency of mass shootings, this is a hilariously thin excuse.

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