The Radio Silence creative team that includes directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett and producer Chad Villella mark a career highlight with Ready or Not, a rollicking horror-comedy that happens to be Fox Searchlight’s widest release to date. The movie’s thematic elasticity — which many critics peg as a timely critique of Donald Trump-era, one-percenter avarice — plays to multiple audiences. Politics, however, don’t need to stand in the way of the film’s breathless race through the preposterous scenario so alluringly and successfully teased by the trailer.
As a high-concept bonbon for genre lovers, the deadly game-play strategies of Ready or Not occupy the familiar territory of humans as hunted prey in literature and film. From The Most Dangerous Game to The Purge, the sickening thought of people stalking people as sport is more often than not attended by authorial observations on class, privilege and power. The directors address each of those three in the twisty adventure of Samara Weaving’s deliberately-named Grace, a young woman of modest means about to marry into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas family, which built its fortune on card and board games.
Suspension of disbelief is required, by viewers and by Grace on her wedding night. Tradition requires her participation in an unusual Le Domas initiation ritual. Comically trading on the ripe trope of coitus interruptus, which doubles, along with Grace’s white lace wedding dress, as a symbolic acknowledgement of the heroine’s “purity,” groom Alex (Mark O’Brien) grumpily and reluctantly goes along with the expectations. Grace, of course, draws the one card that triggers a life and death version of hide and seek: she will attempt to conceal herself from her new in-laws until dawn while they in turn attempt to locate and kill her, armed with an assortment of rifles, axes, shotguns, crossbows, and pistols.
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The universal experience of the durable children’s pastime translates effortlessly to audience identification with the protagonist, and the filmmakers make sensational use of the endless rooms, hidden passageways, staircases, dumbwaiters, corridors and grounds of the opulent estate (played by a few Toronto-area locations) occupied by the members of the off-kilter clan. As a kind of grown-up Clue in reverse, complete with the tribute appearance of a pepper-box revolver, Ready or Not also lays out a motley assortment of Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock-worthy opponents hell-bent on dispatching Grace prior to sun-up.
As Grace copes with her horrifying crucible, the stages of her new personhood are symbolized by the increasingly sorry state of her gown. The dirtier and bloodier and more torn it becomes, the more you like her. She’s a smaller-scale cinematic little sister to Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill). This year has already seen a bounty of entertaining and thought-provoking horror. Midsommar and Us, superior films that feature intriguing similarities to Ready or Not are just two of them. While all three have moments of humor, Ready or Not sprints along with a deliberate tonal playfulness that mitigates the kind of alarmism that led to Universal’s suspension of Craig Zobel’s The Hunt in response to another one or two of America’s never-ending supply of mass shootings.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.