READY OR NOT has one of the great cinematic punchlines. It’s much better in context, so I won’t give it away, but suffice to say that it’s not only pithy, it’s also all too relatable. So is the film itself, in a deliciously twisted way. This very black comedy plays on the fine line between horror and farce juggles horror tropes and family dynamics with aplomb. And a whole lot of gore.
It is a fraught family occasion that opens the film. Grace (Samara Weaving), an orphan with only a string of foster families in her past, is marrying Alex (Mark O’Brien), the scion of a very wealthy family whose fortune rooted in board games and, possibly, a pact with Satan. In order to be accepted into the extended family, most of whom believe she is a golddigger, Grace must spend her wedding night playing a game designated by the draw of a card from a mysterious box. It’s not just any box, but one that comes with a family legend about its previous owner, Mr. Le Bail, and the great favor his did the Le Domas family four generations back. And it’s not just any card, but one, putatively, printed on the spot by Le Bail himself.
Of course Grace draws hide and seek, the one game that doesn’t end by everyone quietly retiring to their rooms for the night. No, this game requires the family to arm itself with heirloom weapons (crossbow, anyone) and hunt down Grace before dawn. And by hunt down, I mean kill. As much as Alex loves Grace, he doesn’t warn her about the implications of the ritual, and she doesn’t get wise until Alex’s coked-up sister, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) accidentally slaughters the wrong person. The rest of the flick is Grace running in a progressively deteriorating wedding dress as her in-laws track her with the help of the Beethoven-humming family retainer, Stevens (John Ralston).
Very bad things happen to everyone at some point, and if that were all there was to this, it wouldn’t be memorable despite some very clever directing Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Camera angles are just enough off kilter to set the absurdist mood, while the editorial cutting makes the action even more horrifying and hilarious. In addition to the riff on family madness, there is a blunt and bracing take on the class system (which, of course, doesn’t exist here). Plus, Grace, as the archetypal damsel in distress, or in horror-trope vein, the cute blonde who trips when she runs, tweaks the stereotype with relish. Sure, she does trip while running, but instead of simply screaming before dying, she uses part of her prim wedding dress as a weapon. She also swears like a sailor from her first scene (where she’s obsessing over getting the in-laws to like her). Weaving has real grit, when tearing into an assailant or the tulle skirt of her gown when it gets in her way, she does it with an intense focus and an unfettered aggression about what life had dealt her. Again.
Take away the literal murderous intent of those around her, and you have the textbook study of what happens when a stranger marries into a close-knit family. Even the ones that like her personally aren’t going to side against kith and kin, in this case Alex’s mother (Andie MacDowell in a finely tunes comic turn) whose genuine regret over losing a daughter-in-law to whom she relates doesn’t impinge on her zest for the hunt.
READY OR NOT toys with it audience until the very end. Grace’s ability to weather very close-calls takes some intriguing turns as the family works through their own issues with pecking order, favorites, and the utter disdain felt for all of them by Aunt Helen, played as a walking grimace by Nicky Guadagni. It makes you giggle over disturbing developments, and cheer for things that are clearly wrong, but are also absolutely the right thing to do. By the end, we are convinced of Fitzgerald’s observation that the rich are different than you and me, and we’re all the better for not being one of them.