Rich territory: how class warfare is taking over the multiplex

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Grisly comedy horror Ready or Not joins a vicious pack of films this year that have been pitting the upper class against the poor

The thing about rich people is that they need the working poor much more than the working poor need them. The new horror film Ready or Not imagines a circumstance under which the upper crust will literally instantaneously, violently cease to exist without the regular sacrifice of the underclass. The Le Domas family, a detestable group of scions to a vast fortune built on a board game empire, keep up a peculiar tradition when one of their own gets married. Before an outsider will be permitted to join their ranks, they must first play a game, which happens to be a lethal round of hide-and-seek for the hardscrabble Grace (Samara Weaving). If she loses, she will be strapped to a ceremonial tablet and gutted like a trout in tribute to Satan. If she wins, the Le Domases are convinced they will all meet their demise, so the girls got to go. In-laws, am I right?

Not since 1989s Society envisioned the Beverly Hills elite as a clandestine murder-orgy cult has a mainstream horror release been as outwardly, nakedly contemptuous of the wealthy. But theres something in the air these days, with a handful of new movies evincing a deep and abiding distrust of the haves while portraying the have-nots in heroic terms. Things are getting crazier out there, mumbles Joaquin Phoenixs Joker in the upcoming solo vehicle for the longtime Batman villain, another picture about a man with nothing ground down by the whims of one-percenters. It would appear that that atmosphere has also seeped into our multiplexes, too, as shoulder-chipped film-makers work out class resentments in the culturally sanctioned roleplay of the cinema.

Betty Gilpin in The Hunt. Photograph: YouTube

Even the faintest hint of friction between the blue and white collars was enough to get Universal to pull The Hunt, a satirical The Most Dangerous Game update pitting heartland types against millionaire poachers gunning for their hides. The party line from the studio had to do with avoiding any association between the recent spate of public shootings and the human-on-human gun violence in the film; look closer, though, and one notices that the grassroots outcry urging against the release came mostly from conservatives offended by the notion of playing prey to the 1%s predators.

The Korean festival sensation Parasite will soon reintroduce these ideas of righteous revenge taken on the moneyed by the impoverished when the film comes to US theaters in October. For now, however, we can find an equally dense meditation on similar themes in Jordan Peeles Us. The smell of allegory emanates strongly from the fledgling auteurs sophomore feature, and while he invited viewers to gin up their own readings, the core concept pertains to the oppositional relationship between those above and below the poverty line. Peele renders that divide physical, laying out a subterranean world where doppelgngers called tethers are commanded by the movements of their corresponding humans out in civilization. Here, the trickle-down effect applies even to muscle motion.

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Evan Alex, Lupita Nyongo and Shahadi Wright in Us. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

Most clever of all, Peele makes the distinction between loathing for the rich and loathing for the conditions that allow for such widespread hardship. In the clash between the Wilson family and their homicidal doubles, theres no real villain; the well-to-do Wilsons arent Mister Burns-level wealthy or anything, they just went to good schools and own a boat, albeit a cruddy little boat. Theyre fundamentally decent people they have to be, for the movie to sustain dramatic stakes but they cant help that their comfortable lifestyle comes at someones expense. Peeles real nemesis is the zero-sum mentality that pits black populations against themselves, in which someone must socioeconomically lose for someone else to win.

Ready or Nots directorial team of Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin paints with a broader brush, and may be all the more invigorating for it. The curdled Le Domas clan has coasted on their privilege for so long that theyve forgotten how to do anything, and bloodthirsty but useless makes for a potent comic combination. The best gag of the blackly funny script lies in the mile-wide streak of incompetence in these killers, who cannot operate the impractically anachronistic weaponry that family lore dictates they must use. At a certain point, all the crossbow mishaps start to feel like an extremely grim prop comedy routine. In true pampered fashion, the Le Domases rely on their infinitely more capable house staff to do most of their dirty work for them.

Weakness ultimately defines the Le Domas name, and of all stripes. Theyre beset with defects of personality and morals, a collection of dimwits and vice-indulgers. Theyre physically fragile, on multiple occasions overpowered by the comparatively slight Grace. But most critically, they have a structural weakness, in which their precarious position of power thinly separates them from exploding into nothingness. The moment they lose the upper hand, the moment Grace asserts herself and refuses to be part of their sick game, the moment that the underclass rejects the gruel served to them on a silver platter, the order upends itself.

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