Marriage, Murder, and Class Warfare in a Screwball Horror Comedy
DIRECTED BY MATT BETTINELLI-OLPIN & TYLER GILLETT/2019
I am a stalwart fan of the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s: send-ups of traditional romance, in which love and marriage go sideways; movies which often featured bright, lovable heroines dominating over weaker male counterparts. Screwball comedies also commonly skewered the rich. The wealthy families who sprawl across screwball comedies are eccentric, idle, incompetent. They are peppered with vain, vapid sisters; drunken, self-loathing brothers; idiotic in-laws, curmudgeonly fathers, and doting but ineffective mothers. This is an apt description of the extravagantly wealthy Le Domas family at the center of Ready or Not, with one addition. The Le Domas’s are also Satanists.
Of course, Grace (Samara Weaving) doesn’t know she’s joining a family of Satanists, bound by a deadly curse, when she marries Alex (Mark O’Brien), younger and favored son of the family. She only knows that his family seems faintly dysfunctional and disapproving of her (“They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore, like my wife,” says the drunken, self-loathing brother, Daniel.) Grace, raised in foster homes, is so thrilled to be part of a family that she’s willing to overlook the Le Domas dynasty’s (“We prefer dominion,” Alex tells her) quirks, even when she finds out that being initiated into the clan requires playing a game at midnight on her wedding day.
The Le Domas family has made its wealth through games – many of them featured in an early montage, beautifully retro looking board games with names like “Secret Council”, “Family Ritual”, “Abracadabra”, and most notably, “Mr. Le Bail’s Gambit”. Mr. Le Bail is a Satan figure who offered Alex’s great-great-great-grandfather a fortune in exchange for the Le Domas family carrying a ritual into perpetuity. Each time someone joins the family through marriage they are required to choose a card identifying what game the family will play. There’s only one “bad” card in the deck – Hide and Seek – which requires that the new spouse be found and offered as a human sacrifice before sunrise on the morning after the wedding. For generations the bargain has been kept, the family has amassed wealth off of it’s board game business, and every errant uncle or cousin who has tried to opt out has died a horrible death. The Le Domas are basically the evil version of Milton Bradley.
Grace pluckily agrees to play a game with the in-laws, and draws, of course, Hide and Seek. It doesn’t take long before she realizes the real stakes of this game and the bulk of Ready or Not is Grace attempting to escape death, Alex trying to help her, and the rest of his family making fools of themselves and turning on each other as they pursue Grace. They’re not the cream of the crop, this family. Alex’s coke-addled sister, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), who accidentally kills not one but two of the family’s maids, wails, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” after almost shooting her father. None of them do, really, although mother, Becky (Andie McDowell) is more level headed than the rest. “Work the problem,” she says. “Take a minute, but just a minute,” she instructs her increasingly hysterical husband, Tony (Henry Czerny). Daniel’s heart isn’t in any of this, and he ambles from room to room becoming increasingly drunk. Meanwhile Emilie’s idiot husband, Fitch (Krisiian Bruun), watches YouTube videos to try to learn to use the crossbow he’s been assigned, and texts his bros while Grace escapes behind him.
Ready or Not is a pastiche, but a great one. It’s a touch of Clue, a bit of The Most Dangerous Game, and a good deal of My Man Godfrey. Any worthy screwball comedy needs a heroine who is vulnerable and openhearted, but resilient. She must be both guileless and feisty – able to rise to any absurd situation. Not everyone can pull it off like Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard could, but Samara Weaving can. Whatever the “it” factor is, she has it. Grace has a playful, roll-with-it spirit until she realizes what’s really happening. After expressing her righteous anger at Alex for not warning her away from marrying him (he weakly tries to blame her: “You wanted to get married.”), she tears the bottom off her wedding dress, laces up her high tops and fights for her life.
Ready or Not is ultimately a horror comedy, emphasis on the comedy. It’s not frightening, it’s frequently very funny, but it’s also quite violent. By late in the film, as revealed in the trailer, Grace is a mess: her wedding dress is blackened with blood and gore. At the center of the movie is the question of whether or not the curse is real, or just a family legend for which they are willing to kill. Fitch even Googles to find out if a satanic curse is “real or bull****?” If the curse is not real, the Le Domas family is without excuse. But if it is, well, that’s a real pickle. “I just can’t let my whole family die because of you,” Daniel tells Grace, as she begs him for help. But if a family can only be preserved by taking innocent lives, maybe that family line is best ended.
Some reviews are making much of the class warfare in Ready or Not. I didn’t really see it at first, but it is there. There’s more than one joke about Grace marrying Alex for his money, and a few direct shots at the wealthy. “The rich really are different,” Daniel says, as if it explains why his family is committed to killing someone they’ve just met. “F*****g rich people!” Grace rages, after someone in an expensive car refuses to stop and help her. But the real condemnation of the rich in Ready or Not is simply in the family’s assumption that their lives matter more than Grace’s life, that they are entitled to kill her for their self preservation. Matriarch Becky (a name that has become synonymous with white privilege in popular culture) makes much of keeping the family together and even welcomes Grace until she sees her as an obstacle to protecting the only people who really matter. Before long Tony tells Grace that she’s just another goat, like those they keep in the barn for other ritual sacrifices.
This predatory quality, the conviction the Le Domas family has that Grace’s death is unfortunate but necessary so that they may continue to live and enjoy “all the nice things we have” will resonate with some who see the vampiric quality of peak capitalism. It’s why “eat the rich” jokes gets so much traction – because the poor often see their lives as consumed by the wealthy and their “dominions”. Conversely, the Le Domas family sees this as a zero sum game. If they don’t kill Grace, they die. In such a stark “us vs. them” world, there can be no mercy. Sure, it’s unfortunate to have children in cages or babies drinking lead-poisoned water, but who knows what kind of anarchy would be unleashed, what disaster we might invite, if we don’t continue to privilege our lives over theirs? Or so the Le Domas family might argue. There’s more than one kind of devil’s bargain, and they don’t always advertise themselves with cloaks, daggers, and Latin incantations. Maybe, for all it’s screwball humor, Ready or Not is really about class warfare, after all.