Ready or Not (2019) by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Review by Andrew Swafford
When I made my video essay on guns in horror movies last year, I leaned heavily on the book Mythologies by Roland Barthes – a foundational text for interpreting symbols as they appear in pop culture. To reductively paraphrase his thesis, the main thrust of Barthes’s argument is that the images we are presented with in pop culture tend to tacitly endorse the worldview and lifestyle of the uber-rich, and what really made that click for me was his description of weddings:
“[T]he big wedding of the bourgeoisie, which originates in a class ritual (the display and consumption of wealth) can bear no relation to the economic status of the lower middle-class: but through the press, the news, and literature, it slowly becomes the very norm…it is as from the moment when a typist earning twenty pounds a month recognizes herself in the big wedding of the bourgeoisie that bourgeois [mythology] achieves its full effect” (Barthes 141).
In other words: diamond rings, designer dresses, lavish feasts, and decadent banquet halls have somehow become sacred obligations for all people to splurge on, despite the fact that only the extremely wealthy are in a position to pay for these things comfortably. But because most of us buy into the mythology that’s been pushed on us since birth, we end up putting our families into debt in the process of LARPing as the rich, effectively glorifying their lifestyle to the point of equating it with a lifetime of happiness. (There’s obviously more to go into here regarding how weddings were originally designed to signify financial alliances between families, with childbearing daughters as bargaining chips, but I digress.) “The big wedding” is just one example of this phenomenon provided in Barthes’s book, but:
Ready or Not is about a wedding. The bride, Grace, was raised in foster homes; the groom, Alex, is the heir to an old-money board-game business established circa the Civil War. Oh, and also, the patriarch several generations back made a deal with the devil to protect their intergenerational wealth – funny how that kind of thing would happen around the time of the Civil War, isn’t it? Anyways, in order for Grace to enter the sanctum of this family’s vast fortune, she must undergo a wedding ritual one step removed from the already mythologized one: she has to play a game that the family owns. The game is chosen at random by a mysterious green box – containing an unseen presence one might call “the invisible hand” – and most of the games are harmless: Chess, Checkers, Old Maid, etc. But when the box chooses “Hide and Seek,” that’s a sign to the family that the unseen presence demands a blood sacrifice; Grace must either be found and killed, or the family will be destroyed along with all its riches by satan himself.
Released the same weekend that billionaire dark money propagandist David Koch died of natural causes, Ready or Not is an allegory about the inherent evils of the ultra-wealthy that is designed to be cathartic for anyone not thoroughly brainwashed into thinking that they’re on our side. And like the death of David Koch, it provides an opportunity to see representatives of the ruling class brought to justice in a way that they never are in any other arena. For Koch, the passage of time got him; in Ready or Not, we’re treated to a rare case of satan ex machina, in which one unfathomably powerful force of evil is consumed by an even more unfathomably powerful one.
The two central observations of Ready or Not – namely, that old money is the result of deeply evil actions made generations ago, say, around the time of the Civil War, and that people who are wealthy enough to commit crimes and get away with it not only don’t deserve our sympathy, but also don’t deserve to exist – are good ones. However, like any good allegory, there are a lot of smaller points along the way that add nuance to the narrative’s radical conclusion. The family’s live-in employees are turned against the lower-status Grace, for example, despite the fact that their bodies are viewed as expendable by the family itself (at least one of which is a person of color). Another nice touch is when Grace escapes in one of the family’s cars and calls roadside assistance to help save her life, only to find that the cops are more interested in the fact that she’s driving stolen property than the fact that her life is in danger. I also like how guns are the primary weapon used by the family (the fact that guns make killing “too easy” in most horror films works perfectly here, as the whole point is how easily these antagonists can get away with murder), as well as the fact that Grace has to repeatedly repurpose her wedding dress when under duress, ripping apart this mythological symbol of class ritual in order to help her in a literal class struggle.
One of the most potent dimensions of this allegory, however, is the characterization of the family itself. If we lived in a meritocracy, we might expect the uber-wealthy to be extremely intelligent and cunning in all forms of competition. Ready or Not understands that we don’t, so the rich as portrayed here aren’t any smarter than us normal folk – they just have better resources and more of a safety net when they fail. One particular character is too coked up to shoot straight, for example, and faces no repercussions when she accidentally murders members of the wait staff. The myth of bourgeoisie superiority, however, is passed down from one generation to the next, normalizing violent behavior towards the underclasses even in children. And although certain antagonists in Ready or Not have various amounts of disdain for their family’s wealth and traditions (and even sympathy for Grace’s plight), they are antagonists nonetheless – all of them are willing to defend their family with violence when they feel their status is being truly threatened.
I have to admit, however, that this allegory feels a little incomplete when it comes to what exactly the violence of the rich is. We see wealthy people chasing a young woman with guns and crossbows, and we’re expected to understand that yes, the rich are a malevolent force in the world, but we’re given little suggestion as to what the real world analogue for that violence might be. Is it the fact that the rich are able to keep huge swaths of the lower class without healthcare? Is it that the rich can, like David Koch, destroy the natural environment with impunity, dooming the rest of us to climate apocalypse? Is it that the rich can literally abuse and kill people and buy their way out of facing justice? Or is it just the violence inherent in profit-extraction, in the purely Marxist sense?
Ready or Not functions well as agitprop for working-class folks who harbor resentment for the ultra-wealthy already, but it rarely points the finger at what exactly the rich get up to that is violent in nature and therefore worthy of retribution, which is perhaps why film critic Justine Peres Smith said on Twitter that she has “a very hard time believing any rich person would ever be offended by Ready or Not...It's a movie that should make people uncomfortable and fails!” In her final review, she said that “The film makes it easy to hate the rich, without engaging with systematic problems of wealth inequality.” She has a point: if you’re a CEO who pays your workers 1/300th of what you pay yourself (as recent statistics show most do), you probably can watch Ready or Not with a clean conscience if only for the fact that you don’t actively chase people around mansions with guns and crossbows. In Ready or Not, we’re stuck in that mansion with these characters, and as much as I enjoy that structural constraint on a genre level, the insulated world of the film somewhat hinders our ability to see these antagonists as malicious on any mundane level outside the walls of the manor.
A much more wandering and expansive movie like Eyes Wide Shut, on the other hand, draws clear connections between its obviously malevolent sex cult and the ordinary behaviour of its wealthy protagonist, who leverages his power and privledge on several occasions as a tool for attaining sexual satisfaction. But perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Hadestown, a folk-album-turned-Tony-Award-winning-musical that repurposes the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth into a tragic story about true love being choked out by desperation for money. In Hadestown, as the headlines suggest, work is hell. Hades himself is cast as something between a boss, a landlord, a fossil fuel magnate, and an autocrat, putting dead souls to work in the mines in exchange for nothing other than a continued existence spent toiling in servitude (and calling them to do so in language that eerily presaged the political ascendance of Donald Trump by about 5 years). Working with a lot of the same raw material as the film in question (class divide, marriage, the god of the underworld) Hadestown is a much more cleanly worked out allegory than Ready or Not, even going so far as to offer its audience a subtly symbolic rose in all its marketing.
Nevertheless: in my video essay on guns in horror movies, I argue that horror movies mythologize the things worth being afraid of, and that good mythology about the very real evils of the world can serve as a type of blunt object with which to fight against the bad mythology we’ve casually absorbed our whole lives. As an allegory, albeit a somewhat incomplete one, I find Ready or Not to be good mythology.