They say there is no movie without the screenplay, and that’s absolutely true…but of course a film is made up of more elements than just the words on the page. Ready or Not is an incessant 90-minute reminder of that fact, since this cleverly conceived, sharply scripted, wonderfully acted film constantly undercuts its many strengths with its inability to concoct a coherent visual scheme for its frenetic action and dark comedy. It certainly doesn’t seem as though directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett rested on the laurels of a script they knew was good, but rather that they purposely went for a style that wasn’t functional. Nevertheless, the film remains fun, but not as fun as it might’ve been if it followed the screenplay’s punch with a visual knockout blow.
Why would I need to be the film language snob who ruins everyone’s good time? Because if only the film made visual sense, it wouldn’t have distracted from the inherent cleverness of this concept. But Ready or Not isn’t content to stay out of its own way – it explicitly wants to assert itself visually but fails, preventing the material from soaring into the gonzo-satire stratosphere. What results is an entertaining lark, but it’s hard to be satisfied with that when this could’ve been a cult classic.
Conceptually, the movie is a modern punk spin on The Rules of the Game, with the ruling class preserving itself in the most primitive of ways. The Le Domas family conducts itself as a sort-of familial secret society, one that operates under stringent time-honored guidelines when taking on new members. Said guidelines become abundantly clear to Grace (Samara Weaving) on the night she marries into the Le Domas clan, at which point she becomes the target of a psychotic game of hide-and-seek wherein the family hunts the new bride throughout their massive gothic estate with lethal intent until dawn. It’s a wacko family ritual that seems to stem from some sort of long-standing curse – the Le Domas family must kill off Grace by sunrise, otherwise she lives and they all die. The upstream logistics of this supposed curse are labyrinthine but inscrutable – this is sort of Ari Aster For Dummies – but the conceit is admittedly delicious, rife with possibilities for wicked satire, off-the-wall violence, and transgressive dark humor.
In practice, Ready or Not takes advantage of plenty – if not even close to all – of those possibilities, delivering a romp that places its tongue firmly in its cheek and aims its tone far over the top, a cartoony bloodfest with timely satiric undertones about class warfare and radicalized violence. The only problem is that it’s such a stylistic mess that all of that conceptual goodwill gets lost in a boondoggle of incoherence. The dingy cinematography doesn’t help in that regard, though on its face, the lighting is aptly, evocatively gothic. The issue really comes down to directorial shot selection, with manufactured swish pans to cover what seems to be missing connective tissue and action that’s edited with the grace of a sledgehammer, so that clearly designed set pieces are never quite punctuated. That’s an especially glaring problem given the film’s propensity to use violence as a punchline – it’s hard to choreograph shocking visual gags when the editor is always playing catch-up with the camera whips.
That lack of basic stylistic cohesion is a distraction from which Ready or Not can barely recover, though enough of its giddy ridiculousness breaks through. The cast most certainly had a blast making it, indulging in the intentional cheese of this murderous aristocracy with glee. Weaving, though, is the standout, an absolute superstar in the making, her dry wit and precise comic timing shining through even as the filmmakers try to edit away her agency. That’s enough to make the film worth watching…and honestly it will likely age well during subsequent viewings on late-night cable, where the visual shortcomings are less glaring and the only thing to focus on is hapless one-percenters trying to kill each other.