The Ritual (just landed on Netflix in most places) is an effective little horror. Based on the book by Adam Nevill and directed by David Bruckner (The Signal, the V/H/S segment Amateur Night), the film mostly follows a formula but it does so with craft and atmosphere.
See if you’ve heard this one before: After a horrifying, violent event, four friends Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James- Collier and Sam Troughton decide to go on a cathartic trip in an unknown country. After deciding to cut across uncharted territory, they get lost and are picked off one by one by an unseen force.
See what I mean? In this case the violent event is the murder of their friend during a botched robbery and the uncharted territory is the vast forests of the Sarek National Park in Sweden. I won’t go into specifics, but someone is wrestling with survivor’s guilt, there is a cabin in the woods, there is no mobile signal and so on.
And you know what? It works. I haven’t yet read Nevill’s novel and I believe there are significant plot differences in the translation to film (I have avoided to read too much about it to avoid spoilers). I am happy to report though that the movie gets Nevill’s authorial voice just right and, as a result, The Ritual is survival horror at its’ bleakest. Bruckner hasn’t yet convinced me that he is more than a craftsman, but he does an excellent job in ratcheting up the tension and showing us how helpless his protagonists are in the face of primeval nature. Andrew Shulkind’s cinematography makes the woods (Romania doubling for Sweden) look unbearably threatening and the general ambience of doom goes a long way in making us forget that the script demands that our heroes act like fucking idiots at crucial moments.
The actors also do plenty of heavy lifting. The script doesn’t give them a lot to work with (far as I can tell, Ali- who was great in Chris Morris’ Four Lions– gets absolutely nothing to do) but they manage to show glimmers of personality. They are absolutely ordinary blokes and that ends up being key for what follows, but only Spall gets the chance to show some range.
Which brings us to the last act. I can tell that it is going to be divisive but I loved it. Before that point, the film never shows its’ hand and it is impossible to know what the story is really about (no spoilers from me). The resolution is ambitious, fun and thematically fitting. But it is weird and comes from a very specific horror tradition and won’t be for everyone.
I hope The Ritual is successful because mid- range horror films like this simply do not get made. Here at Crows ‘n’ Bones, we have often stated that there are a lot of great horror writers currently producing quality work. I hope their work gets the recognition it deserves because we all need a horror renaissance right about now. So yeah. Recommended. But read the book too.