Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s “Ready or Not” can pretty much be summed up by a single line of dialogue from the movie’s relentless second act: “Fucking rich people.” Spat out through a set of bloody teeth, those words cut right to the heart of this devilishly fun late summer surprise, a violent dark comedy that (sometimes literally) skewers the 1% by inviting us into a clan who would sooner kill than surrender their good fortune. There are other devious forces at work here, as well — the story hinges on the strange moral codes that hold families together — but most of all this is a movie about how money is always a devil’s bargain. Inheriting it can be dangerous; marrying into it can be deadly.
Grace (a phenomenal Samara Weaving) learns that lesson the hard way, even if money is the last thing on her mind. A former foster kid who grew up without a trust fund or any of the support that it entails, Grace is getting hitched to Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) for all of the right reasons. She’s a genuine soul with a grounded sense of humor, and it’s clear from the very first scene that she thinks of Alex’s family — an angry and stuck-up hive of WASPs — as more of a liability than a selling point. That’s something the two lovebirds have in common, and something we see them joke about one last time before they walk down the aisle.
But only Alex, the semi-estranged black sheep of the Le Domas “dominion,” knows why every family wedding has to be held at his father’s (Henry Czerny) sprawling mansion. Only Alex knows why the house is threaded with secret passageways, trap doors, and a special room full of Civil War-era weapons. And only Alex knows why it’s so important that the eccentric Le Domas brood end every wedding night with a randomly chosen game of some kind.
He isn’t trying to trick his bride, he just doesn’t think it’s worth scaring her. Most of the time, nothing bad happens! When his alcoholic brother (Adam Brody) married a coldly elegant woman named Charity, they all played Go Fish or something. When his cocaine-addled sister (Melanie Scrofano) married a sweaty human disaster named Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun), they all played Old Maid. The odds of them landing on Hide & Seek — the most dangerous game — are slim. But that’s exactly what happens on Grace’s special night, and Alex is powerless to stop the rest of his family from hunting his new bride. If they catch her before dawn, they’ll kill her. And if they don’t, the consequences might be even worse.
The reasoning behind this premise is utterly preposterous, but screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murray are too smart to pretend otherwise; while the dialogue isn’t as sharp as any of the weapons the Le Domas clan use to hunt Grace down (and a lot of those old axes and crossbows are pretty rusty to begin with), the script never loses sight of how silly and strained this all feels.
Meanwhile, Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin — perhaps better known as two-thirds of the filmmaking collective “Radio Silence” — mesh perfectly with the wild vibe, and manage to navigate a story that unfolds like a crowd-pleasing mash-up between “Clue” and “The Purge” (the film splits that difference with the help of three scantily clad maids, who look like they were plucked off a fashion week runway in order to serve as morbidly hilarious redshirts). The direction is more functional than flashy, and it sometimes leaves a number of easy laughs on the table, but “Ready or Not” never breaks its own rules, and it’s a testament to Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin’s command of the material that the film’s gooey, go-for-broke ending feels shocking and inevitable in equal measure.
But Weaving — a rising Australian actress who’s unmistakably related to Hugo Weaving — is the glue that holds this whole ridiculous movie together. In a fast-paced August programmer that does what it says on the tin and can’t afford to let people get bored for even a second, there isn’t much time for niceties or nuance. Nine times out of 10, the Grace character is just a standard-issue scream queen who surprises herself with her own capacity for violence and succeeds as a cipher for any number of audience fantasies. But disposable as the characters in “Ready or Not” might have been on the page, they all smirk to life on screen.
Weaving knows that she’s in a comedy of terrors, and she endows Grace with a shrewd comic wit that can’t be faked, but — crucially — the actress doesn’t allow her performance to be defined by some kind of eye-rolling irony. She never lets us forget that this was supposed to be the best day of Grace’s life. The scene where she has to rip her wedding dress in order to stay hidden is almost heartbreaking. That slinky white gown was beautiful, Grace believed in it, and it was probably the most expensive thing she’d ever worn in her life. Grace laughs at a lot of the crazier shit that happens in this movie, but it’s only to stop herself from crying. It’s delightful to find a potentially star-making performance in such an unexpected place.
Which isn’t to say that Weaving is the only standout cast member. The great Andie MacDowell is a treat as Grace’s morally uncertain new mother-in-law, and Nicky Guadagni is a hoot as the bloodthirsty aunt Helene, who wears a cape like an extra from “Rosemary’s Baby” and wields an ax like an extra from “Braveheart.” Brody, far removed from his teen idol days on “The OC,” shoulders much of the dramatic weight as the most conflicted member of the Le Domas murder squad, and he tethers the movie to something human even when the story is drifting towards darker territory.
As the wage gap increases and late capitalism takes its course, the rich better get used to being victimized on screen; Trump can’t get all of these movies cancelled. But “Ready or Not” doesn’t settle for cheap shots. Brody’s character, who sighs that “You’ll do pretty much anything if your family says it’s okay,” helps deepen the film’s class commentary into a halfhearted exploration of inherited moral codes, and the inertia that allows them to pass from one generation to the next. No one’s going to confuse this for “The White Ribbon,” but the movie is at its best when it shows a little sympathy for the devil.
If “Ready or Not” never quite feels like a cult classic in the making — the scares are soft, the imagery is familiar, and the ending is so batshit that it confirms your nagging sense that the previous 90 minutes were holding back — it’s still wickedly entertaining from start to finish, and painted with enough fresh personality to resolve into something more than the sum of its parts. It might be unhelpful to grade it on a curve, but go-for-broke movies like this always look good when they’re released at the end of a summer movie season where almost every other wide release played things safe. And that’s one thing the Le Domas family never do.
Fox Searchlight will release “Ready or Not” in theaters on Wednesday, August 21.