Just two weeks ago, Universal Studios shelved “The Hunt,” a film in which rich people hunted the poor as part of their leisure culture. The trailer suggested that the movie is a black comedy that mocks the rich, but right-wing media in the United States, seconded by President Donald Trump, saw it as an allegory dealing not with social class but with politics: liberals from the big city entering the “real America” to hunt conservatives. The debate raged without anyone having seen the film; but the pressure worked, the movie was put on the shelf, and America marched on. Now, without furor or public denunciation, we have “Ready or Not,” a black comedy about rich people hunting humans.
The new picture is a creation of Radio Silence, a group of filmmakers whose specialty is low-budget, multiple-director, unconventional horror movies. “Southbound,” for example, was an attempt by six directors to make a blood-drenched road movie consisting of a collection of short stories. “Ready or Not” is the first film by two in the group, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, within the framework of a Hollywood studio. With a minuscule budget of $6 million, which includes salaries for actors such as Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody, the directors wisely focused the story on events that take place in one house during a single night.
The plot begins on the morning of Grace’s wedding to her sweetheart, Alex (Samara Weaving and Mark O’Brien). Having grown up in a foster home, with no money or support, she feels like an outsider on the sprawling estate of the Le Domas family. Alex is the young heir to an extensive business empire, but has been estranged from his family. Grace’s desire to marry brings about the family’s reunion in the old estate.
But instead of a regular wedding night, Grace is invited to take part in a bizarre tradition of her new family. The veteran tycoons, who made money from board games like Clue, get every new bride or groom who joins the family to choose a card on their wedding night. On it is the name of a game, such as checkers or chess, but once in a generation a lethal card comes up. Hide-and-seek, Le Domas style, brings the family together via a hunting expedition throughout the house.
Although “Ready or Not” is tagged as a comedy horror film, its center of gravity tilts toward the grotesque rather than the terrifying. Even the few moments of horror are aimed more at the gut than the heartbeat. Weird deaths occur, with a tendency to close-ups where other directors would turn the camera away. The ordeals endured by the human body in this movie are an adventure in colorful slapstick. Those who think there isn’t enough blood in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will get their wish in “Ready or Not.” The dialogues, however, quickly go limp, as the central joke – clumsy, idle rich folks who are compelled to take action in reality – tends to replicate itself.
Still, the humor that underpins the movie offers an insight into the degenerating effect of money, especially for those who are born into it. In contrast to “The Hunt,” the villains here aren’t exactly a commando unit, but a family of billionaires from birth, aged 10 to 70, armed with archaic weapons such as an axe and a century-old pistol. There’s a funny scene in which one of them scours YouTube searching for an instructional film on how to fire a crossbow. The old estate, with its multiple rooms, hidden passages and crawlspaces, is a marvelous arena for blood-soaked hide-and-seek. When the bad guys are inept at killing, however, the main cause of death is negligence and incompetence. The co-directors make intelligent use of the possibilities offered by the diversified space – it’s huge and labyrinthine but also contains quite a few small, claustrophobic places – not only for horror but also for fascinating interactions between the characters.
Servants of power
Weaving, who at times looks like Margot Robbie but is actually the niece of Hugo Weaving from “The Matrix,” is wonderful at creating a balance between paralyzing fear and sound logic. Even if the script casts Grace in the role of the “last girl,” the screaming protagonist who tends to recur in horror movies, Weaving turns her character into an empathic figure. Grace is gentle, polite and scared, but she is not fragile and helpless.
On the other hand, the filmmakers also avoid turning her into an action heroine. Grace is more human. As a product of the social-welfare authorities, an instinct for survival is implanted in her, even if she lacks skills. In the face of a family like this, that can suffice. In fact, the real danger to her life stems from the domestic staff, workers like her who have tied their fate to a rich family and are ready to risk their life for it. The servants of power.
The class allegory isn’t sophisticated, but it’s milked for all it’s worth. In a world in which vast wealth isolates those who possess it, every outsider is necessarily a suspect. Even the partners of Alex’s brother and sister, who have already undergone the test of the card, become second-class family members. They’ll always have an asterisk, always be conditional. That’s also the reason that they, like the servants, are the best and most enthusiastic hunters. They’re not blind to their low status; on the contrary, they are well aware that their whole life can be taken from them if the hunt fails.
However, Grace becomes even more interesting when the class aspect is abandoned in favor of probing the family dynamics. Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out” drew on blacks’ fear of white liberals to create a horror comedy, and now “Ready or Not” tries to generate a panic attack in people who are entering the institution of marriage. The film acts as a reminder of the overlooked price of romantic love – marriage is not a wedding with one person but with a whole family. Grace, who has no family, understands that entering another family, any other family, is a punishment. The family unit forces people very different from one another to maintain never-ending relations – despite disparities of behavior, opinions and deeds – that would not be accepted in any other relationship.
The family is an eternal test of the boundaries of patience and endurance, only to meet again for the Sabbath-eve meal. A wedding, from this point of view, is a dive into an additional family unit, but this time it is not experienced as self-evident and natural. The madness is overt, but only to those who arrive from the outside.
Even though it’s not exactly a comedy and not exactly a horror movie, “Ready or Not” offers an entertaining, if also over-the-top, experience. The focus on Grace as a poor young woman in a world of the rich is entertaining for the most part, and the supporting characters also contribute their part by making it easy for viewers to hate them. The Korean film “Parasite,” which is also currently playing in Israel, is a more sophisticated and more successful dramatization of rich people turning workers against one another, but “Ready or Not” offers a large catharsis and greater madness, of the sort that lurks right under our noses.