A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that's stalking them.
Adam Nevill (novel)
In the latest chapter of “What could possibly go wrong?”, four close male buddies from the UK brave the dense forests of Sweden to pay tribute to one of their own – who recently tragically died.
The Ritual pulls from several worthy predecessors, including Neil Marshall’s The Descent, Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and The Blair Witch Project (Fear not,The Ritual is not a found footage film).
It also takes a cue from the Turkish film Baskin – released a couple of years ago. And that particular call-out is not necessarily a good thing. More on that comparison to follow…
Following the death of their friend Robert (Paul Reid) – now-adult college chums Luke (Rafe Spall), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Dom (Sam Troughton) take a multiple-day hike to the vast untouched wilderness of Sweden. Once there, they must deal with injury, a terrifying rainy night in an abandoned cabin and an unseen massive creature – apparently on the hunt. In addition, Luke must handle the overpowering guilt that he might have been responsible for Robert’s death.
The Ritual was released on Netflix a few short days ago, and my social media has since lit up with “have you seen this?” and “so good!” messages from every corner. So naturally, I had to take a gander.
Is it worthy of all this gushing and immediate hype? Yes and no.
The quick set-up and immediate tension are wonderful. The film grabs you and there is no doubt that you’ll be on the edge of your seat. I was.
However, I can pinpoint the exact moment when the film started to falter. After the initial weirdness of that creepy house in the middle of the forest – our four friends take a path they believe will get them out of this desperate (read: lost) situation. And naturally, here comes the bickering. Such back and forth insults, physical threats and the like are par for the course in films like this. And yes, The Ritual has plenty of character ammunition to make this bubbling-under-the-surface resentment and tension – more feasible.
But up until that point (this was about the halfway mark) I was truly teetering on the edge of “terrified”. It was this moment – perhaps the cliché of angry arguments in survival situations – which gave me pause… and “presto”, the film had lost me.
From then on, the film certainly has some additional positive things, but it never regained the isolation, dread and atmosphere it had worked so hard to create – and which was so effective in the film’s first half.
All four of the lead performers do great work. They’re backed by a believable history between the friends, and so they’re allowed to simply do their acting work – and to flourish at it. They were all believable as old buddies (this is harder to get right than you might think), dealing with the loss of their friend by paying tribute to him – hiking the wilderness, “‘cause that’s what he would have done”. I liked the characters. And while there’s not a ton of insane exposition, it’s just right.
As Luke, Rafe Spall has a little more to play with, as he’s the central character carrying so much emotional baggage. It’s a fascinating beginning for the character – as we get a glimpse into his personal levels of courage. And it sets up sympathy as well as a profound distaste for Luke. I was quite intrigued by that choice and that it worked as well as it did. The introduction of Luke’s shortcomings is used later, but not as well or as much as it could have/should have been. It’s mentioned again almost in passing – but ultimately wasted. But Spall (looking like a sibling of Ryan Reynolds) is a strong actor and it’s easy to follow his character’s journey because of his abilities.
The creature, once it’s finally exposed – is absolutely inspired. It’s terrifying, grotesque and leaves you with the question, “what in the hell is that thing?”
The design and execution (the first full appearance is seamless and something to behold) are impressive. And an image of the creature from a distance – in the film’s final “fiery” moments – absolutely breathtaking.
As far as cinematography – there are zero complaints. The film is gorgeous, the locations jaw-dropping and some of the editing (notably Luke’s flashback/present day combinations) is worthy of a solid pat on the back.
So why a 3.5-star score? Well, let’s go back to my earlier mention of Baskin. That film started in much the same way as The Ritual. I was engaged from the start. The film looked good, the characters were well-drawn and the performances solid.
But in both films – at the halfway point – there’s a marked shift in tone. It all comes down to what I consider poor choices to bring everything to a head. Such magic, such inspiration, such tension – all come tumbling down in both films, because the explanation and introduction of new characters (to help in that explanation) don’t feel organic. It feels like a cop-out. It feels like we’ve seen this before.
And it’s no wonder I’m comparing The Ritual to Baskin. Basically, the same thing happens to our main characters in both pieces. This shift doesn’t work – in either film. And they were both soooo good up until that point.
As far as a “bottom line”, there’s plenty to recommend here. But the structure and story shift somewhere in the middle – muddy up and draw attention away from the taut, exciting and expertly-done first half. It never gets back to where it started, and that leaves some emptiness and disappointment.
While I used the “What could possibly go wrong?” as an insight into character motives/actions, it can also apply to this particular film as a whole. “What could possibly go wrong?” Well, I just spelled it out for you.
A 3.5-star rating is not bad by any standards, but oh what could have been…
Director David Bruckner also gave audiences The Signal, one of the stories out of V/H/S and a portion of the solid anthology film; Southbound.
The Ritual is now available on Netflix.