We’ve all caught a whiff of insufferable in-laws. If it’s not firsthand experience, you likely know someone who isn’t titillated to see more of them around the holidays. At the very least, you’ve seen I Think You Should Leave’s dabbing focus group sketch hero and heard the disdain with which he suggests Paul loves his mother-in-law. Regardless of whether or not it’s a legal status or a euphemism for your partner’s family, in-laws are a common enough problem to have elicited a subgenre of films that include Monsoon Wedding (2001), The In-Laws (1979), The Birdcage (1996), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and the Meet the Parents series. Some are more believable than others, and some are grotesque, mythicized metaphors, like the newest addition to the theme, Ready or Not.
The dual-writer, dual-director horror-comedy cuts straight to the chase: What if your in-laws believed that they’d be murdered if they didn’t kill you? Moreover, what if that sudden conviction struck them on your wedding night, minutes after you collapsed onto your plush, Victorian-era bed with your dreamy new husband? And finally, what if it was all due to chance? In other words, it had nothing to do with you at all, merely the time and place you toppled into.
Ready or Not creates the most asinine in-laws conundrum out of one of the more common in-laws realities: decent people who act shitty because they can’t handle change (i.e. don’t want to). Grace (Samara Weaving) has just married into the Le Domas family, a snotty, wealth-worn group of old money obsessives. She’s not the first to marry in, but it’s not like those that have are cherished. Daniel’s (Adam Brody) wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque) is casually referred to as a “gold-digging whore.” And Emilie’s (Melanie Scrofano) husband, Fitch (Kristian Brum) is maligned for his imbecilic nature, perhaps the only fair judgment made by the family.
However, Grace is the first that wouldn’t be willing to slaughter an innocent person on an alter to maintain a Satanic blood pact, so in a sense, she’s the first outsider, not counting her husband Alex (Mark O’Brien), who claims he has left his family’s cruel ways in the past, much to their grave sorrow. But you should think twice about a guy who’s willing to put his bride’s life up to chance. He allows Grace to be the subject of a twisted game of hide and seek in which she hides, and everyone hunts her with fatal intentions — the perfect hyperbolic metaphor for dreadful in-laws. Enter in only to be driven out. But why? They liked things the way they were.
The tight, easy, inward-looking exclusivity of the family fold overshadowed by the conjugal spreading of wings is too much to bear, the reach toward inclusion too threatening to the vetted crew’s relevancy. Everything must be contained in the palm of the familial hand, which is intentionally left uncaged for the sake of excusing the immediate termination of anything that tries to break out. It’s kin to the same mob mentality which serves as the breeding ground for totalitarianism, the swallowing of free thought, the suffocation of true expression, and the most toxic iterations of groupthink.
But, like the swelling insecurities of Texas A&M Aggies, the real reasons behind abhorrent actions are too childish and immature to admit. They must hide behind something: Tradition—the rotting heart of the Le Domases and many other insular family units. Like tradition in the socio-cultural sphere, the concept itself is not innately evil, but it’s often used to manipulate others and salvage corrupt, outdated, oppressive ideals. Le Domas patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) spells it out in his hunt commencement diatribe, much to the agreement of his wife, Becky (Andie MacDowell). They would never ordinarily do something like this, but they owe it to those who’ve come before them. They won’t abandon the ritual.
When logic fails, employ tradition. When desires are too irrational to be met, call on the demons of the past. The mindset is reminiscent of a cult, reeking with the stench of inexplicable rules and gnostic faith in surnames. The frequency with which they spend time together and the insistence upon the gravity of that time normalizes the insanity and acts as a blinder to the red flags deep in their periphery. It’s the kind of circular mentality that runs itself.
To be loyal to the family is to listen to the family. To listen to the family is to be loyal to them. It’s why the other spouses thrive when tasked with the hunt. They operate on the same family system mentality. “I’d rather be dead than lose all this,” Charity proves, despite being loathed by everyone in the family. The point isn’t to seal the family off from any newcomers. That would cut off the lineage and fly in the face of tradition. The goal is to micromanage the makeup, to keep out the “other” — as any school of exclusive thought aims to do — or, like colonizers, mold your unwilling subject to the form you prefer.
The family’s characterization summons thoughts of an ugly colonial past. The Le Domases are fashioned after British-Indian colonizers and medieval royalty. Their giant mansion-turned-grindhouse is a blend of varying aesthetics of tyrannical monarchs’ estates. The walls are adorned with the heads of wild game, implying their rich history in the field of hunting. Dark, narrow passageways originally meant for slaves run through the house like old veins that used to involuntarily pump the lifeblood of residential royalty, a nod to the generational transcendence of the colonial mindset. The Le Domases are only a couple steps away from resorting to incest just to play it safe, as old royalty once did.
In the final shot, Grace — muddied and bloodied, cigarette dangling between her fingers, body like a limp noodle — bitterly scoffs, “in-laws” with the same irreverent tone we use to sneer at institutions and their tools (e.g. “the government,” “taxes”). Behind her, the Le Domas house burns to the ground, the lineage of sick fucks eradicated with it. It’s a callback to the final shot of Heathers—another film in which the corrupt establishment burns: the institution of high school traded for family. Of course, family, like tradition and high school, is not innately bad. It’s simply a matter of what we do with it. Maybe your in-laws are fantastic. Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones. If that’s the case, watch it to appreciate what you have, or more importantly, to understand what the alternative feels like.