Ready? Or not. The simple query that starts a game of hide-and-seek is a question that can turn eminently existential when applied to marriage.
In “Ready or Not,” not-so-blushing bride Grace (Samara Weaving) is ready to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien). But is she ready to face his stuffy, moneyed family, the scions of the Le Domas gaming fortune?
Set in the world of richies and rituals, this slick slasher flick hinges around a marital game night, a midnight initiation that every wannabe-Le Domas has to endure. If the newbie pulls the hide-and-seek card, the family hunts them until death or dawn. It’s a blood pact they keep with the ghost of their benefactor, which they wholeheartedly believe will keep their good fortune intact.
If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s “The Most Dangerous Game” with notes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the sassy, snarky ’tude of “Heathers.”
The street-smart and sarcastic Grace has to outwit, outplay and outlast a bunch of privileged buffoons obsessed with status. They’re not croquet-mallet-wielding mean girls, but rather her in-laws wielding antique pistols and crossbows, and the same whiff of class warfare is undeniable.
The script, by Guy Busick (TV’s “Watch Over Me”) and Ryan Murphy (his first feature-length project), errs a bit too far on the side of sardonic to be taken seriously as true social satire. Horror requires a certain amount of sincerity for the audience to fully buy in, and there’s hardly a trace in this incredibly ironic screenplay, which invites the audience to laugh rather than scream.
Although it gestures at female empowerment with Grace as a thoroughly modern Final Girl and offers a unique spin on “off with their heads” for whiny 1-percenters, the heavy layers of irony both in script and performance never allow the subversive ideas to emerge fully formed. Chuckling at female servants accidentally shot in the face just doesn’t jibe with either of those implicated themes.
Nonetheless, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who also teamed up on 2014’s “Devil’s Due’) direct the heck out of the script, maintaining the pace at a full rip, papering over any character inconsistencies or plot holes.
The visual style is distinctive and moody, giving way from a sun-bright wedding day to the queasy and claustrophobic atmosphere inside the foreboding mansion. The color is desaturated and full of contrast, cast in an eerie turquoise pall, as if through a murky Instagram filter.
The directors also elicit some memorable performances from the actors playing the family members, especially Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, who emerges as the supporting breakout star, glowering like no one has ever glowered before. Competing with her for the most quivering coif is Henry Czerny as Grace’s increasingly hysterical father-in-law, while Adam Brody sets the tone with his signature smirkiness as reluctant brother-in-law Daniel.
Thanks to Weaving’s eye-rolling, primal-screaming, evil-giggling performance, the strongest impression the movie leaves is of the cathartic, transformative female rage at the center of it all. The rage is what keeps Grace alive. The sprawling estate itself, a representation of exclusionary greed, rips at her flesh, and though bloodied and battered by this blood sport, her sheer survival is her resistance against the gaping maws of the demented tradition.
Ready or not, here she comes.