Written by: Joe Barton, Adam Nevill (novel)
Directed by: David Bruckner
Starring: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, and Robert James-Collier
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"My old scoutmaster used to say 'If the shortcut was a shortcut, it wouldn't be called a shortcut, it would be called a route.'"
David Bruckner’s The Ritual is the latest film about oblivious vacationers meeting doom in the wilds of a foreign land, meaning it doesn’t exactly break much new ground. We’ve seen countless variations on this theme over the years, so much so that it’s fair to wonder if this sort of thing can even be vital anymore. But as is often the case with worn-out riffs, The Ritual is proves that meticulous craftsmanship is more than capable of outrunning familiarity. Further helping its cause is its attention to detail, or, more specifically its tweaking of certain details to help this familiar material absolutely shred once it tips its hand to reveal a killer, face-melting take on pagan mythology.
Such witchery is far from the minds of a quartet of friends that have set off to hike the Swedish countryside to honor the memory of a buddy that was recently slain in a convenience store robbery. His memory weighs especially heavy on Luke (Rafe Spall), who witnessed the murder but was frozen in panic, unable to intervene and possibly prevent his friend’s death. His—and everyone else’s—hopes for a therapeutic excursion go awry when Dom (Sam Troughton) steps in a hole and injures his knee, forcing the group to take an alternate route through the woods. Obviously, this proves to be a poor choice since something evil lurks within, waiting to tear right through the group’s minds, bodies, and souls.
The Ritual is a familiar tale that’s simply well-told: from the outset, it’s unbearably tense, as we actually witness the ill-fated robbery during what’s revealed to be Luke’s extended flashback. There’s something immediately gripping about the stark outburst of violence punctuating this scene that almost allows it to double as Bruckner’s mission statement: here’s a film that won’t be afraid to go right for the jugular—at least in due time. He’s not exactly in a rush to completely dwell on grisliness, as he’s acutely aware that this sort of tale thrives more on atmosphere and interpersonal drama to ratchet up the tension before indulging in bloodletting. The Ritual is a powder keg of a film, loaded up with both supernatural forces and the characters’ latent resentment towards each other, both of which work in concert to unravel this hiking trip and send it straight to hell.
Bruckner masterfully escalates the situation by allowing the audience to soak in the incongruously gorgeous desolation of the Swedish locales. DP Andrew Shulkind is instrumental here in crafting intimidatingly wide canvases that capture the breadth and width of both the mountainside and the surrounding forest, a thick, impenetrable mass of trees looming in the distance, forming an ominous ridge in the dying light of sunset, just waiting to swallow up anyone who dares to wander in. Once the group does, The Ritual takes on the tenor of The Blair Witch Project, with Bruckner and company creating the suggestion of something lurking within. Strange noises, bizarre totems, and eviscerated animal carcasses are warning signs that go unheeded as the group treks on and eventually stumbles upon a cabin deep in the heart of the woods.
This, too, should be a warning, yet the quartet sees it as a necessary refuge, having journeyed too far into the woods to make it back out before nightfall. Nevermind that there’s some kind of obviously demonic shrine upstairs, and nevermind the fact that one of the guys catches a glimpse that confirms something horrific and inhuman is indeed roaming the woods. Even when each of the men experiences a mind-bending nightmare, most of them are quick to shrug it off and solider on, totally oblivious that they’re courting their own doom. During this stretch, the film obviously graduates to more overt ghoulishness here, but Bruckner is also careful to keep turning the screw on the group, effectively transforming this cabin into a crucible forged of their own paranoia and bitterness towards each other. Maybe it’s Dom’s fault they’re stranded on this route; then again, maybe they wouldn’t have to be here at all if Luke had just done something to save their friend’s life in the first place.
Mercifully, Bruckner and screenwriter Joe Barton don’t let The Ritual degenerate into another tired screaming match between a bunch of testosterone-fueled meatheads. For one, some of them aren’t around long enough for this to happen: there’s a moment when one of them winds up impaled on a tree, entrails dangling from his corpse that signals just how south this has gone. The survivors’ reaction is a perfect mix of shock, horror, and the realization that they’ve got to get their shit together if they’re going to make it out of the woods alive. Unfortunately, these woods—or more specifically, the inhabitants prowling deep within—have other plans for them. I wouldn’t dare spoil the specifics—not necessarily because they’re hiding some mind-blowing twist or surprise but because the climax of The Ritual is best experienced when you’re able to let its frenzy of violence wash over you.
The entire film slowly swells towards this crescendo of shotgun blasts, ritual sacrifice, and fire, with Bruckner fully indulging the premise's ghastly, grotesque potential. After spending most of the film playing things close to the vest, he’s all too eager to unleash a killer twist on Norse mythology, complete with an instantly indelible creature design that’s likely to be among the coolest things we’ll see in a horror movie this year. Somehow, Sweden (Sweden!) is transformed into a brutal hellscape, as the region’s mythology—which has been blunted and rendered quaint with time—comes roaring to life with its Old World paganism fully intact and prepared to rip everything apart. I spent the last 20 minutes or so carried away in a cinematic bliss—just when I thought The Ritual couldn’t be any more up my alley, it somehow found a way to stir up echoes of everything from King Kong to the glory days of 70s British occult films.
What’s more, Bruckner and company are careful to keep the characters at the forefront: there’s just enough development throughout, allowing the performers—particularly Spall and Troughton—to infuse The Ritual with a poignant humanity. While some of the symbolism grows a bit heavy-handed towards the end (Bruckner can’t resist connecting the thematic dots and twisting this ordeal into Luke’s chance at redemption of sorts), the film at least dares to be more than an empty massacre. It practically begs a comparison to The Descent, especially since Barton orchestrates the drama to keep the tension between Luke and Dom simmering throughout, providing the proceeding with another edge of uncertainty.
Perhaps the most surprising—and impressive—thing here is that The Ritual actually represents Bruckner’s feature film debut. Despite being a standout on various anthologies for about a decade now, this is the first time he’s helmed a feature on his own, and you gather the impression that he’s trying to make it count. But where many in this position might take a wild, ungainly swing, Bruckner takes a measured approach: The Ritual reveals the steady hand of a seasoned vet whose impeccable craftsmanship renders an old genre standard into a vital, potent burst of pulp nirvana.
One can’t help but wonder just how much of a missed opportunity his aborted Friday the 13th project was, especially now. It feels like that one is destined to go down as yet another unproduced film that will haunt genre enthusiasts forever—unless, of course, someone in Hollywood is smart enough to revive it. Even if that’s not possible, Bruckner should be on every shortlist all the same after The Ritual, a film that feels less like an arrival and more like a confirmation of one of the genre's most exciting new voices.
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