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 more than 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 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 have with the ghost of their benefactor, which they wholeheartedly believe will keep their good fortune intact.
“Ready or Not” is “The Most Dangerous Game” with notes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the sassy, snarky ‘tude of “Heathers.” Grace is Veronica in a wedding dress: a street-smart and sarcastic smoker who has to outwit, outplay and outlast a bunch of privileged buffoons obsessed with status.
But the script, by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, 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 the screenplay, which invites the audience to laugh rather than scream. Although it gestures at female empowerment 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 jive with either of those implicated themes.
However, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett direct the heck out of the script, maintaining the pace at a full rip, which papers 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.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett elicit some memorable performances from 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.
While the mocking tone mostly undermines any trenchant commentary, thanks to Weaving’s eye-rolling, primal-screaming, evil-giggling performance, the strongest impression “Ready or Not” 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.
★★½ “Ready or Not,” with Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny, Mark O’Brien, Kristian Bruun, Melanie Scrofano, Nicky Guadagni. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, from a screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy. 95 minutes. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use. Opens Wednesday, Aug. 21, at multiple theaters.