Spoiler warning: This review acknowledges there is something in the woods with the guys in The Ritual, but I don’t say who or what.
Now that’s more like it.
After a recent run of less-than-stellar Original Movies, Netflix finally delivers with The Ritual, a Toronto Film Festival acquisition which plays like The Descent meets Backcountry meets Blair Witch. Adapted from an Adam Nevill novel and directed by V/H/S’s David Bruckner, Ritual ultimately hews a little too familiar, but it delivers a wonderful sense of dread, smartly executed thrills and takes full advantage of the inherent eeriness of its setting. After watching this, I know I certainly don’t want to go backpacking through the woods anytime soon. I mean, that was already true, but more so now.
The basic premise: four British blokes go into the woods as part of a bonding exercise and tribute to a fallen friend, but as tensions boil over and old grudges finally come to light they slowly come to realize they might not be alone.
The Ritual launches into this story like a less-caffeinated The World’s End. A bunch of dudes are hanging out at a pub and struggling to accept that they’ve outgrown each other. More specifically, Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Robert (Paul Reid) seem to have outgrown Luke (Rafe Spall), who hates all of their ideas for what to do on their next get-together, prefers to keep drinking long after they’ve had enough and turns passive-aggressive when they all want to go home to their families. Before the opening credits even roll, Robert is killed in a liquor store robbery which Luke could have stopped but instead cowered in a corner.
A six-month time jump takes us to Sweden, where the fellas have all met to go hiking together since it was one of Robert’s last wishes. It is immediately clear they have yet to fully talk about what happened in that store, and if you just give it a while one of them is finally going to blame Luke for Robert’s death. That seemingly inevitable accusation won’t be any more punishing for Luke than the self-hatred he clearly carries, with Rafe Spall perfectly capturing the faraway look of a traumatized, beaten man just trying to get through each new day without falling apart.
Then after around half an hour of these four bickering, hiking and taking an ill-advised shortcut into the Norse woods they come across a remote cabin.
It’s a double whammy of horror movie don’t’s, really: 1. They take a shortcut; 2. They sleep in a cabin in the woods.
Predictably, strange shit happens after that, yet it’s still quite a while before we see what exactly is in the woods with them. Wide shots leave us looking at every inch of the frame for some hint of a monster. Point-of-view shots and odd noises in the distance imply something or someone is indeed watching them, although Luke seems to be the only one who notices. Ritual operates on the Jaws principle of hinting rather than showing. When we do finally get an explanation and direct confrontation with whatever or whoever it makes for serviceable horror, but the build-up to that moment is when Ritual is at its strongest and most psychological.
It doesn’t help, though, that the script doesn’t really seem to care about any of the characters not named Luke.
Early on, there is an awful lot of the guys simply walking and talking and taking selfies, like some horror movie version of the travelogue portion of 15:17 to Paris. Yet beyond some shared stories about their old university days and scant references to families back home we don’t learn much about Dom, Huch, and Phil as individuals. Dom’s the weak one, Hutch the leader, and Phil the…one who brought the wrong kind of shoe? There’s no real arc for any them because the story is really about them vs. Luke and how they blame him for Robert, even if they can’t fully admit that they do.
However, I still found these early portions of the story entirely engrossing, largely due to Bruckner’s masterful use of sound design and claustrophobic camera movements to create a palpable sense of dread.
It creates this atmosphere where there might be something spooky behind any one of the trees. It was the not knowing what form that scare would take or where the movie was going with all of this that I loved. Once Ritual starts revealing its cards and falling in line with more than a couple of genre tropes it loses a bit of what first made it seem special. However, even then Bruckner’s knack for tension manages to impress, turning a mere close-up, for example, of the bottom side of a floorboard into bloodcurdling terror.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Ritual is a better-than-average Netflix Original that does for hiking what The Descent did for spelunking. Even if you don’t like where the story ends up going or the familiar tropes it falls into, you will be suitably spooked enough by the claustrophobic horror of the woods.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
- RottenTomatoes: 68%
- MetaCritic: 58%
- Letterboxd: 3.2/5
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Julianne recently pointed out to me that a lot of my horror movie reviews praise the build-up but fault the pay-off. The Conjuring 2, The Vault, It Follows, and Better Watch Out are but a couple of examples. The trend seems to be that I have a thing with horror movies where I oddly gravitate more toward the character-building portions of the story and tantalizing bits of tension than the full-on horror. So, am I wrong here? Is the second half of The Ritual just as good if not better than the first?
- [HUGE SPOILER] Discuss: Should the monster have appeared to Luke as Robert, beyond that brief moment during one of the liquor store nightmares? Or did Ritual do the smart thing by avoiding a monster-as-Robert finale, which could have played very much like an It knock-ff?