Tuesday 7 January 2020

Ready or Not

"And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” 
William Gibson: Count Zero.
Ready or Not, slasher horror flick, intentionally or unintentionally a flaming critique of obscene capitalist wealth, begins similarly to Get Out with the introduction of an outsider into a tightly-knit family unit. The anxiousness about the unknown is followed by a process of acquaintance meant to soothe nervousness, which is then quickly undermined by the appearance of increasingly escalating weirdness. But, like Margaret Atwood’s bathtub, the escalation happens slowly enough that by the time that true extent of the family’s psychopathy becomes obvious, it is already too late to get out. 
The source of horror thus becomes two-pronged: one is the usual horror of facing something evil alone and having to find the resources to beat it, and two is the fact that other people’s families can have radically different rules than your own, from you’re your perception of normal stems from. In the case of Ready or Not’s main heroine, Grace (Samara Weaving, previously on Picnic on Hanging Rock), her sense of normal is already precarious, since she grew up without a family of her own, and has put all her hope into her fiancé Alex’ (Mark O’Brien, Halt and Catch Fire). She is keenly aware that she is an interloper in terms of class, that these heirs of a board-gaming empire may consider her poor upbringing as a social faux pas. 

At first, it seems as if the family is for the most part weird, but welcoming to its new member. Alex and Grace marry. But soon, in fact, a couple of minutes after the ceremony finishes, weirdness descends. Alex informs his new wife that they must all partake in a game at the strike of midnight, a family tradition that sounds harmless if it weren’t for Alex’ obvious anxiety about the whole thing, and a growing feeling that “game” here doesn’t necessarily mean what Grace understands. Sure, it may appear weird that there is a secret room in the mansion designated for this ritual, that the father (Henry Czerny, for me forever that guy from When Night Is Falling) presents a mysterious riddle-box, from which Grace is asked to draw a card that will decide the midnightly game. Aunt Helene (Nicky Gaudigni) may be hostile to Grace, but then, who doesn’t have an evil aunt in their family? Except we, the viewers, at this point already know more than Grace, since the opening scene of the film depicts a wedding night from many years ago, in which the groom was eventually hunted down with bow and arrow. The card that Grace ends up drawing says Hide and Seek, and a silence of horror descends – perhaps because everybody, including the brothers, remember the night from the opening scene as the previous time the family has played this game. It turns out that most of the cards are harmless (which explains the number of dimwit outsiders that have somehow survived their initiation ritual – especially Fitch, played by a Kristian Bruun who basically just gives another performance as Donnie Hendrix). If Grace had drawn a different card, the night may have ended in a game of chess, and she wouldn’t have been any wiser as to this family until the next unfortunate member decided to get married. Instead, Hide and Seek is the wild card – every single family member present in the mansion is now tasked with finding and then ritually murdering Grace, who isn’t entirely clear on the rules and thinks it’s a harmless game of hide and seek, until people start to die (when Alex’ unhinged sister Emilie, played with gusto by Melanie Scrofano, begins accidentally killing people left and right, fuelled by drugs and incompetence). 

The idea that families are people’s foundational comprehension of what normal entails, and that this always holds the potential for violence and ideological indoctrination, has been explored in detail in many other films, none more disturbing than Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kynodontas. Without an outside source to measure your family against, it becomes hard to understand the socially accepted range of normal, and the Le Domas’ here have an insular, isolating quality to them that makes it appear as if nobody save Alex has ever even left the mansion. The children grew up hearing the foundational story of their family repeated again and again: that their great-grandfather made a deal with the devil (because how else to explain obscene generational wealth) that allowed the Le Domas all of their riches, but requires frequent ritual sacrifices. In off-years where no unlucky bride or groom draws the wild card, the Le Domas sacrifice a goat to the devil. The pact is potent because in case of failure to deliver, each family member is doomed. It is a potent foundational myth that can only continue to exist in a structure that allows the obscenely rich so much leeway that people can simply disappear on their property without any investigation, that allows them a hold over their staff that is strong enough for them to participate willingly in the slaughter. The Le Domas seem to exist outside the bounds of society, outside the grasp of the judicial system (and indeed it is the greatest dream of the most obscenely rich to simply leave the grasp of nation states, perhaps into the open sea or space), and the crimes remain unrevealed because they target individuals who already vulnerable in some way. Grace has no parents, Alex’ brother’s wife, who happily participates in the hunt, mentions a background of poverty that she would rather die than return to, and nobody would miss Fitch if he had disappeared on his wedding night. Capitalism has always reproduced itself through the sacrifice of the underprivileged, an in this case, the only way into privilege is to accept the values that place the family’s continued existence and wealth above the lives of strangers. 

The idea of self-preservation acts like a poison, even though knowledge of the actual consequences of following through is limited to rumours and whispers. Nobody gets out clean either, and the worst offender (perhaps from the beginning if we’re being honest) is Alex himself, who starts out trying to help his wife to survive, hedges his excuses about not revealing the truth about his family to her by blaming the marriage on her and claiming it was highly unlikely she would draw the card that she did, and then makes a full turn into sheer evil at the end, when he realises that Grace now knows him, and could never love him again. If he cannot possess her by saving her, he would rather sacrifice her to complete the ritual. The only person who does maybe attempt to pay for his sins is Alex’ brother Daniel (Adam Brody), but he does so perhaps because he considers his own life not valuable enough to be worth saving. 

In the end, the only way is to burn the whole shit down, and Grace survives because she shakes off all the pretences of trying to fit in. She rips off her dress, she wears her beat-up Converse, she finds resources beyond imagination for her own self-preservation against the over-powering mechanism she is up against. Her sole point of contact to the outside world in the film happens when she manages to steal a limousine and contacts the helpline, only to have the guy shut down the car because it was reported stolen. In the end, the structures outside the remote mansion also mostly exist to protect the property rights of the wealthy, and there is no outside source of justice that Grace can appeal to. The devil acknowledges a game well-played, but he won’t have a hard time finding a new mark. 

2019, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, starring Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni.

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