A tale of the nefarious plots of a diabolical family that made its wealth off board games, “Ready or Not,” at its best, calls to mind some devilish delights of the 1970s, from the antique-toy-stuffed manor of the original “Sleuth” to the jet set’s homicidal party games in “The Last of Sheila” to the ever-resilient final girl of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Some of its turns are better than others, but since this is the kind of twisty, hard-R comedy of gamesmanship and survival that Hollywood never seems to make anymore, fans of the genre are better off celebrating the film’s triumphs than picking over its occasional disappointing rolls of the dice.
Australian actress Samara Weaving, giving what can be legitimately termed as a “star-making performance,” plays Grace, who’s about to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien), scion of the rich and powerful Le Domas family. Just before the ceremony, he gives her the chance to ditch, an offer she no doubt later wishes she had accepted.
As it happens, it’s their long-standing tradition that anyone marrying into the family must play a game at midnight, and unlucky Grace gets randomly dealt the “Hide & Seek” card. And as we know from a pre-credits flashback, the Le Domases play it hardcore, as in catch-and-kill. If Grace can elude her predators — including Alex’s alcoholic brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his parents Becky (Andie MacDowell) and Tony (Henry Czerny), and bloodthirsty Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni, styled to resemble an unhinged, punk-rock Julie Walters) — until dawn, she might manage to stay alive.
The premise seems absurd on its face, but screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy keep revealing new information — flipping over more cards, if you will — that explain why Grace wanted to marry Alex even when he was clearly reticent about bringing her into the family, what the Le Domas clan is capable of doing, and why they take their Hide & Seek so seriously.
And if there are still plot holes, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (“Devil’s Due”) and editor Terel Gibson (“Sorry to Bother You”) do their best to keep the pace brisk enough that you won’t have time to notice. Limiting the action to a mansion, the stables and the woods, “Ready or Not” covers a lot of ground while also tightening a grip on Grace in her attempts to escape; she might be surrounded by lots of space, but there’s also always a sense of confinement. The fact that she endures this evening of violence and brutality while wearing a wedding dress is a feat of “backwards and in heels” proportions.
Weaving’s credible indefatigability makes her a memorable heroine, and she brings an honesty to this lunatic plot. Grace’s full realization of the danger she’s in and the cesspool she’s married into comes at her gradually, and Weaving subtly takes us through each step. She’s surrounded by a great ensemble of character actors — MacDowell certainly seems to relish playing a woman who isn’t a nice-as-pie mom on the Hallmark Channel — and for audiences who don’t mind the idea of an arrow in the neck being the comic punchline of a scene, the film offers plenty of dark delights.
About those homicides, though; the script wants to portray the very rich as venal and despicable, but there’s a whiff of classism in its handling of the family’s three maids (Hanneke Talbot, Celine Tsai and Daniela Barbosa, all made up and costumed like extras in a Robert Palmer video) in a markedly different way from its “essential” characters. It’s the same kind of disregard for the lives of 99-percenters that the film seeks to impugn.
Beyond that one big failing, the only disappointments of “Ready or Not” is that isn’t more fully itself, not committing to its darkly comic side as much as it could have or offering as elaborate and nefarious a production design as the spacious house and its antique trappings promise. (The wonderfully chilling “The Hide & Seek Song” — played here on Victrola, of course — should immediately go onto your Halloween playlist, though.)
Miscalculations aside, however, there’s a brutal wit and audacity to “Ready or Not” that makes it feel one-of-a-kind in an increasingly safe mainstream marketplace.