Ready or Not, the Hollywood Films Hate You
Ten years ago, during my brief stint as a literary agent, my boss the Agent asked me to read a submission by an ancient agency client, a man who’d sold a book some 20 years earlier and submitted nothing since. The new submission was a novel about a depressed seventy-something white male retiree struggling to come to terms with an abusive sexual experience at the age of five perpetrated by a man he believed was his father. I skipped to the end--we had a 5-, 25-, 50-page stop rule for when we knew a book wouldn’t sell, and this book made it to 25 because it was written in coherent sentences and no farther because it bored me--to find that the man reconciled with his mother after discovering that his rapist had not been, in fact, his own father but rather a family friend. More specifically, in a single paragraph in the final chapter he discovered that he had mistaken the identity of a man in a dark room, and that accordingly his father was not the culprit and his mother was blameless.
I recall this as one of the first times I reviewed a piece of art. The author being a client of the firm, and the work showing all of the demographic hallmarks and specificity of thinly veiled autobiography, it deserved a delicate and fulsome discussion.
Before I reported to the Agent, all I could think about was the movie Dead Poets Society. Dead Poets Society features a high school poetry textbook, page one describing the author’s formula for rating the goodness of poetry: ask (1) how important is the statement the poem makes about the human condition, and (2) how well it makes that statement, then multiply those imagined ratings to take the sum of its value as if calculating the area of a rectangle. Robin Williams, the cool new poetry teacher at the old-money boarding school, has the students literally tear this idea out of the textbook in favor of his theory of emotional reactivity--asking, in sum, how do we feel about the art, why do we feel that way, is it good to be made to feel that way.
The movie clearly sympathizes with Williams:
Which gave birth to one of my favorite parody videos of all time, which I have to share even though it isn’t really relevant to this essay.
The Robin Williams character’s approach is certainly a better way to sell poetry as a concept and pastime, given that most poetry is awful and good poetry is difficult. As I grow older, however, I have two complaints with this perspective: first, one of Williams’s students ends up dead, and contrary to the movie’s sympathies Williams is not blameless, because any educator who encourages appreciation of art as a lifestyle, career, and personal ethos at the expense of, you know, human relationships and the ability to pay rent, is a bad educator, period. Second, emotional reactivity is a great way to approach some art--I know no better approach to Cats--but fundamentally, good art makes a statement and encourages critical thought about the human condition, and it is entirely valid to ask what that statement is, and ask whether that statement is worth making and whether it is well made.
“It’s well written,” I told the Agent, “but there are two problems. First, I just don’t know who wants to read about an upper middle class retiree struggling to come to terms with fairly mild child sexual abuse, no offense to the Client because I’m sure he experienced it and I sympathize with his trauma. It’s just, he’s a white guy, he’s had a long life and successful career, and there’s a lot...juicier sex abuse stories coming out about the Catholic church and so on, so, like, the conduct at issue in this book is less horror-porn than fodder for white guy rumination.”
I shrugged, not knowing whether I’d crossed a line with someone who, as a single woman working in publishing from the 1960s to the 2010s, likely knew something about sexual abuse. “Know what I mean?”
“Second, I have a whole hangup about major plot issues that are resolved 200 pages later by ‘it was a dark room, turns out I had the wrong guy all along.’ ”
The Agent sighed. “I know. I felt the same way.” She had been hoping I saw something better in it. Then she said something that taught me a very big lesson about the commerce of art.
“It’s midlist fiction,” she said. “And midlist just doesn’t sell anymore.”
I spent the rest of the day researching midlist fiction.
The “midlist” is what we used to call the hundreds of thousands of books published with no great expectation of commercial success, but with the semi-acknowledged goal of nurturing the talents and feeding the families of talented authors. It refers to the literal middle-to-bottom of the listof publications available for distribution and sale by large publisher at any given time. (The term does not apply to internet authors and other independent authors who have no list, and in the strictest sense it arguably no longer exists because on-demand printing means that publishers do not warehouse printed books that are listed for sale; likewise, the term “out of print” is meaningless.) And, in the period before television and the internet enabled unlimited screen-time entertainment, even the generally non-literary public could be counted on to purchase enough midlist fiction to justify the practice, because reading was one of the dominant entertainment pastimes and fiction writing was a viable career even for people lacking in outstanding writing and marketing skills, social connectivity, or pre-existing fame.
The practicing of buying and publishing books known to be midlist began to die in the mid-80s as tv and movies stole literature’s market share and the publishing industry consolidated into a small number of bank-financed conglomerates driven by short-term return on investment, and independent bookstores lost ground to big box competitors like Borders and later Amazon. Midlist exists today in mainstream commercial publishing mostly in reference to works by authors of past bestsellers and likely future bestsellers who happen to write bad books that publishers have to publish for contractual reasons or just to preserve the relationship (I think I’ve written about one of those before). Also, the occasional book that took two or three years to write, that the publisher buys for less than $10,000 and refuses to publicize, just tossing some dollars on the off-chance it takes off. Arguably, the market for extremely formulaic genre fiction (romances, mysteries, YA series) that are easy to write and not expected to sell movie rights is also midlist. Unless a work of fiction falls into one of those subcategories, major publishers only make purchases if they believe a book has an excellent chance of becoming a bestseller, and books will only become “midlist” if they fail commercially.
Bank-financed media conglomeration killed the midlist and with it the careers of midlist literary fiction authors. Likewise, I suspect that it’s a bit harder to be a professional painter than it was in the days before you could buy a high-resolution copy of literally any old, famous painting ever made, or a vintage movie poster, or any other kind of framed wall-hanging visual art for well under $100. And it is in many ways more difficult to be a professional musician than it was in the days before sound recording. So it goes.
But we do still have a midlist in broad artistic terms. A midlist will exist wherever the daily demand for content is so great and so predictable, and the content distribution network so diverse, that relatively small distributors can invest relatively small amounts in relatively mediocre content without the expectation of massive returns. When this occurs, artists who are not superstars can nevertheless earn a middle-class wage producing art that no one expects to be particularly good, but everyone expects to be consumed anyway.
So where is that happening now? Well, for the last 20-30 years it has happened in television, as we moved from three broadcast channels to a few dozen cable/satellite channels with large production budgets to the incredible diversity in streaming content available today. The last decade or so of tv production diversity has been financed largely by hedge funds that competed to throw dollars at cable and streaming networks, which spent the money on showrunners and actors and writers (though, also, colluding to channel that money back to themselves and the hedge funds through talent agency “packing” schemes). As a result, we got Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans and Game of Thrones, among other candidates for best or most popular one-hour dramas of all time, but also stuff like Vikings, Outlander, Justified, and True Detective, all of which have the look and feel of top-line prestige television but nothing close to the thematic density of the previous list, to say nothing of writing, cinematography or acting. (And we still have Law and Order, NCIS, and seemingly a million other genre shows, even in the one-hour drama category, that don’t pretend to great artistic merit, just as we still have Harlequin Romance novels.) But the hedge funds that gifted us with this abundance are now demanding consolidation of distribution channels to reduce the number of shows being purchased and the real dollars paid to artists for those shows. So we may be nearing the end of midlist television.
Film is a solid decade ahead of television on that curve. Where there was once a large market for adult-oriented original films that could profit from $30 million in domestic sales, the film industry survives more and more on “tentpole” films that demand a nine-figure return to break even, and must be thematically and culturally bland to appeal to Asian markets. This is not news; I can remember articles from twenty years ago complaining about how everything is a sequel and everything has a car chase in it, but the process does appear to have reached its apex now, with the domination of Marvel movies and the fact that even lower middle class homes now feature a large-screen, high-definition television and streaming capacity for an almost infinite library of high-quality films and shows for a total cost of $10-20 a month. In those conditions, why would anyone pay $12 per ticket, drive somewhere and likely pay for parking, just to watch something they’ll likely be able to watch for free six months later?
One answer: because you want to leave the house, and it’s an air-conditioned place to go that still costs relatively little, and maybe it allows you to spend time with someone you may want to have sex with later, without forcing you to really converse with them or do anything physical or competitive, all of which can be risky from a sex-later standpoint. And if that’s the reason for adults to go to the movies, there’s not a tremendous incentive for adult-outing movies to be good.
Ready or Not is, somehow in 2019, a midlist movie. It’s definitely not for children. It’s hard to imagine anyone thought it would be very good, or a huge commercial hit. It doesn’t seem intended to spawn sequels or merchandise. It’s just a mildly entertaining slasher-horror-comedy that is likely to be forgotten within a year. And you could tell all of that from the pre-release marketing, and the reviews.
I saw Ready or Not on a date night with my wife during my vacation from work. We grant ourselves one date night a month, and I take one or two week-long vacations a year from my full-time job. So there is considerable pressure, on both fronts, to use that time wisely. And I have to say that I chose Ready or Not because (1) my wife and I were indifferent to the other options, and (2) I was pretty happy that Ready or Not existed, because it was unclear to me why it existed, which meant that even if I disliked the movie I might have interesting thoughts about the market forces that led to its production and release, and about my own reaction to the movie, and what those things tell us about ourselves as humans, appreciators of art, and as market participants. WHICH IS MY CRITICAL APPROACH IN A NUTSHELL, BABY.
And guess what? I do have some of those thoughts! So let’s dive in. Spoilers abound.
Ready or Not is about a woman, Grace, who marries into the wealthy Le Domas family, which owns a company that makes playing cards and board games. The Le Domas family believes that its wealth and success derives from a long-ago contract between an ancestor and a “Monsieur Le Bail,” who is unsurprisingly later confirmed to be the Judeo-Christian Devil or an agent thereof. As a condition of the contract, whenever a person marries into the family, the person must pick a card from a box at midnight after the wedding, and play whatever game the card tells them to play. Apparently the card sometimes names a boring game such as Old Maid, whereupon the family plays Old Maid with a deck of ordinary playing cards and goes to bed, no harm done. But when the card says “Hide and Seek,” the initiate must hide and the family must find and kill them by dawn in a satanic ritual. Should the initiate survive, the entire Le Domas family will die in an unspecified manner. Maybe. Or maybe it’s all just bullshit. (Cue ominous music.)
So, Grace marries into the Le Domas family. The movie spends about 40 minutes of its 90-minute run-time justifying the premise, both in terms of why the Le Domas family would adhere to this insane tradition and why her fiance, Alex, would marry her and allow and/or force her to engage in this ritual. (Some comment on that below; it’s pretty tedious on screen.) All the speaking characters except for one female servant, an Asian woman who has few lines and dies early, are white. Grace apparently grew up poor, everyone else rich.
I am not sure that Ready or Not makes much sense, from either a market standpoint or a critical standpoint, unless you’ve seen or at least know about Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror movie Get Out. Get Out is, also, a movie about an outsider trapped in the creepy rural estate owned by his lover’s wealthy, white family. It is also about that family’s bizarre, violent, predatory rituals. Where Ready or Not remarks on the contrast between Grace’s poverty and the Le Domas family wealth, Get Out is unequivocally about its protagonist’s blackness and what that means to him and the white people around him. Get Out works as a horror movie, but it also works as a piece of art because, going back to Dead Poets Society, it makes some very important points and it makes them beautifully.
The thing about Get Out is that Get Out probably doesn’t make much sense outside America. There’s a specific meaning to the fact that the evil white people in it are very sincere supporters of Barack Obama. The way each of the characters dresses and speaks, whether or not they’re a member of the evil white family, has a specific meaning that relates to the character’s history and personality, all of which becomes very important and builds to the climax of the movie. If you don’t know the difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan, much less the history of American slavery, maybe you can still enjoy Get Out, but you’ll miss a whole lot and you might find a lot of the dialogue very boring.
If I had to guess at the sales pitch for Ready or Not, it would be “it’s like Get Out, but it’s not about race, and it doesn’t make you think, and it’ll play in Albania and/or China.”
If that’s what Ready or Not aspired to, I guess that’s fine, but it wouldn’t excuse the fact that every single graphically violent murder victim--there are four--is a woman. Grace herself is also the victim of a tremendous amount of pornographic violence. At one point she hits a man (after he brutalizes her several separate times), and at one point she punches a male child (after he shoots her), which is played for laughs. Those are the only acts of violence against male characters, in a movie that is about violence, and half of the characters are male, and the family leadership across multiple generations is strictly male.
Moreover, the only characters who experience any real growth in the movie are male. Daniel, brother of fiance Alex, is openly conflicted throughout the movie, and ultimately saves Grace at the expense of his own life. Alex, when he realizes that Grace has seen too much and would never play the happy wife even if they both survive the game, betrays Grace and tries to murder her. Grace does not grow as a person through the experience, does not learn anything, does not herself become violent, and in fact she makes no consequential decisions except at the very end deciding to reject Alex after he attempts to murder her, which doesn’t really show character growth. Throughout the movie, Grace only runs, hides, and survives. (According to this clip, Grace becomes more feral over the course of the movie, which, I guess so, sure.)
(I have to say, I was really expecting a riff on Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, wherein the hunted becomes the hunter. A story so old and so popular it has been explicitly produced for film numerous times and spawned its own subgenre. Nope. Grace just runs, and then at the very end she hits one man with a lamp and beats a woman to death, both times in self-defense, no hunting involved.)
This isn’t a critique of Get Out, and my wife hasn’t seen Get Out and is the only person I’m completely certain will read this far into this blog post (everyone else - thanks!), so I’m not going to spoil the plot of Get Out. But I will say that even to the final seconds of Get Out, the protagonist is learning about his hunters and using his knowledge to beat them at their own game. The knowledge he gains and the way he uses that knowledge speaks to the human condition, and his tormentors’ whiteness, and his position as a black man in America. (Even more so if you know about Get Out’s originally planned ending, which was so dark, yet so logically consistent, that Jordan Peele couldn’t use it.)
None of that is true of Ready or Not. Grace learns very little, neither attacks nor manipulates any characters, makes no interesting decisions. She, along with three female servants, is just a victim of the Le Domas family.
In other words, the heart of the story is not Grace, although Grace dominates the run-time enduring obscene violence. And it’s not a commentary on wealth or whiteness, notwithstanding that Grace occasionally spouts lines like “fucking rich people!” in an exasperated manner, as if that were a witty comment. No, the heart of the story is the family and the ritual. And the ritual is a satanic sacrifice that is frankly quite traditional. Dark, hooded characters, pentagram, stabby knife, chanting in latin, all that shit.
At the end of Ready or Not, Grace survives to the dawn, narrowly avoiding a stabbing death at the hands of Alex in the presence of the family’s surviving members and the empty chair believed to host the spirit of Monsieur Le Bail. Dawn arrives, and the Le Domas family cringes, expecting immediate death from sunlight (like vampires in the Blade movies I guess). When they don’t die instantly, several conclude that the whole Le Bail contract was a hoax, but for obvious plot reasons they must continue attempting to kill Grace regardless. As one character lurches toward Grace with an ax, she literally explodes, followed one by one by the rest of the family. Fiance Alex is the last to survive, clinging to the hope that if Grace forgives him they might outlast the curse together. She throws her rings at him and says “I want a divorce.” (Witty movie.) He explodes. Then for a brief moment she sees Monsieur Le Bail in his chair, and I don’t have a screenshot but I think he looks at her approvingly? Wikipedia confirms. The house burns down, firefighters arrive and ask what happened, she says “In laws.” Fin.
So, to be clear, until the last minute of the movie when people start exploding, there has been open speculation about whether the contract and Monsieur Le Bail are real, and the movie toys with the idea of what people are willing to do to protect themselves and their families and possessions against uncertain and mystical dangers. Ok, that’s an interesting point to make! Except that we also find out that there is an actual, written contract with Monsieur Le Bail, and the Le Domas family knows of another family that violated such a contract and died, and the little box from which they pick the game cards at the start is clearly, actually magical. So we’re not talking a great deal of uncertainty.
This is also not a movie about the great evils perpetrated by the wealthy in protection of their wealth. Once you understand that there is an actual contract with the actual Judeo-Christian devil, and the Le Domas family characters will all die if they don’t kill Grace, the movie can’t be about “the rich” anymore. It’s about, at most, what any family would do to protect their lives and possessions. The movie even acknowledges this, when one character considers abandoning the tradition to assist Grace, and points out she has two young children, and it would be unfair to let them die due to their mother’s selfish morality. (The two young children do die, but the movie tries to make this ok by making at least one of them a nasty, murderous jerk.)
Not only is the violence not funny, but I must repeat that the dialogue bits that are intended to be funny are not funny. The producers literally could have hired a few comedians for pennies to punch up the script with witty one-liners and made the film 30% better.
It is mildly amusing that one character is a wildly enthusiastic overachiever, snorting adderall and trying to convince herself she’s a winner, despite her nervousness and inexperience with weaponry. Her husband, acknowledging the limits of his crossbow skills, pulls up a youtube tutorial and gets distracted texting his bros, oblivous to Grace falling off a roof right next to him. But the mild cultural commentary here is overwhelmed by the gender stereotyping: she, the female Type A undone by her flighty nervousness, he, the goofy and paunchy Millenial dad business bro type ignoring his family to watch youtube vids and text with his buds during a crisis. Result: they accidentally kill two women by shooting them in the face. Isn’t that funny?
(Alternate theory of this movie: Alex has spent years distant from his family, didn’t want the wedding, and initially aids Grace because he thinks it’s the right thing to do and he loves her, and he seems angry with his mother for trying to bring both him and Grace into the proverbial fold. But then Grace bludgeons Alex’s mother to death, and Alex turns on Grace, siding with the family and attempting to kill her. When the attempt fails, he makes a desperate attempt to regain Grace’s affections, which fails for obvious reasons; Alex having not only committed an betrayal but an effeminate and weak and childlike error, siding with his mother over his wife, he deserves no sympathy. Alex is Coriolanus. If the movie played up this narrative arc intentionally, it would be very intriguing, but in tandem with the extraordinary violence against women and seeming disdain for numerous female characters, this arc plays as accidental and misogynist.)
Even accepting the movie’s low artistic aspirations--accepting that someone was aiming for the midlist--it is frankly astounding how misogynist and simply boring this movie is. Humans hunting other humans is a fantastic premise for a story, because it’s an extreme concept that requires an extreme cultural context to justify. It would have taken literally twenty minutes for a screenwriter to rewrite one or two of the murdered domestic servants as male characters. It would have taken a small amount of money to hire people to punch up dialogue. It would have taken marginally more effort and maybe some money to build consistent themes into the movie, to add any substantial cultural commentary, to make its main character interesting.
I have my suspicions, but it’s still hard to understand why anyone would choose not to make those efforts. I do understand that dollar investments do not translate to quality, and that quality does not directly translate to return on investment. But surely there is some correlation. And surely the actual artists who made this movie--writers, directors, actors, to name a few--didn’t want to make a forgettable piece of shit?
I wonder if they just didn’t know. They didn’t see it. Somehow, people making movies in 2019 still think extreme, slapstick violence directed exclusively at female characters is funny.
I suspect that in the end, whether they were conscious of it or not, somebody in a board room—a Fox Searchlight board room, which now means a Disney board room—did want a forgettable movie. Because if there’s one thing that “forgettable” is not, it’s controversial. Someone in the board room probably did say, “yeah let’s make Get Out, but be sure not to make it about Trump, or race, or gender or whatever. A good date movie for the domestic and international markets, nobody’s panties in a twist. Something for the late summer after the Marvel movies leave the theaters. Solid midlist.”
And so, by way of default, by way of making a forgettable midlist movie for mom and dad to see on date night, Hollywood made a movie that mocks violence against women. Isn’t that funny?