The Ritual (2017)

Here there be spoilers...

Five pals since their legendary university days, Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Robert (Paul Reid), gather in a London bar, arguing over what to do for their next holiday together. Underlying their jostling and yays and nays over potential travel spots lies divergent personal ambitions and financial imperatives. Luke, the scruffy charmer who still hasn’t kicked his fondness for hard partying and boozy weekends, ducks into a bottle shop with Robert in tow, only to find the store’s being robbed by two freaked-out junkies. Luke realises he can’t bring himself to perform any act of intervening heroism, and Robert’s refusal to comply with the criminals gets his skull bashed in. Six months later, to honour Robert’s memory and his preferred suggestion for the getaway, the remaining four friends hike a trail along the Sweden-Norway border. When Dom hurts his knee, the foursome decides to take a short cut back to their lodge through a patch of forest.

In time-honoured horror movie tradition, the hikers begin to regret this choice as they’re confronted by scenes of escalating weirdness, including a freshly killed and gutted deer carcass hanging high in a tree, and runic signs carved into bark. Luke keeps hearing sounds like an animal tracking their party, and they camp for the night in a long-deserted cabin that shelters a bizarre and intimidating idol of pagan worship. During the night Luke suffers a terrible nightmare in which he’s forced to relive Robert’s murder, and awakens to find himself standing outside the cabin with gashes on his chest. He soon finds the others are all similarly distraught and disoriented by equally gruelling dreams; they find Phil naked and prostrate before the idol, worshipping it in a fugue state. Once everyone’s regained their senses they set off again, but Dom’s increasingly painful injury and intransigent mood sees them diverging from their planned course and following a path that leads straight towards hell. A monstrosity lunges out of the dark to assault and slaughter, eventually driving the last two survivors into the arms of a clan who worship and propagate the monster, which they believe to be a Jotun, monstrous beings out of Norse myth.

The Ritual has a charmingly unfashionable feel to it by contemporary horror movie standards, and Bruckner’s work here feels as likeable for what it doesn’t try to do as much as for what it does. There’s no found-footage gimmickry: Bruckner creates menace and a sense of tingling threat with patient framings and shots that peer deep into the masking woods where nothing seems to lurk until suddenly there’s a tell-tale twitch of movement, a shadow moving in the mist or blotting out the trees. There’s no strained self-congratulation over some readily parsed metaphor. The nascent tensions between the old chums over their expectations and lifestyles are teased out in the course of the journey and the nature of the struggle as a paradigm for struggling through grief and emasculation speak for themselves. There are no pretences to wooing an art-house crowd, although Bruckner’s spare and eerie visuals are as strong as those of Ti West, Jordan Peele, S. Craig Zahler, Trey Edward Shults, and other tyros of the moment. The set-up is familiar, verging on the cliché, but Bruckner and screenwriter Joe Barton tackle it with such poise and intensity that, as in any well-handled piece of plain genre fare, you don’t care after a few minutes, and the specifics of the drama, the piquant details of the setting, bring their own style of innovation.

Perhaps it’s unfair to then turn around and say the problem with The Ritual is that it’s not quite ambitious and original enough. Bruckner contributed episodes to the horror anthology films VHS (2012) and Southbound (2015) after debuting with The Signal (2007), and his decision here to adapt the regarded novel by writer Adam Nevill, which the film reportedly deviates from in some sharp ways, betrays a spirit partly compromised by his own straightforward fondness for horror movie ritual. Nevill’s book, after managing the familiar set-up, reportedly veered off into more interesting and novel territory than Barton’s script involving contemporary pagans, whereas here the clan the hikers encounter are a regulation collection of yokels given very little time to explore their peculiar subculture and motives. Like Ti West, Bruckner is eager to declare his old-school allegiances and aspirations, but his hints of real talent are retarded by the familiarity of his references and touchstones. Although I appreciate the tightness and tension Bruckner brings to The Ritual, it could do with a bit more of the gabby, woozy intimacy of Bone Tomahawk (2015) for developing character and blazing a different trail around familiar landscape. Bruckner introduces our dubious heroes who remain, essentially, types, with Troughton’s Dom the anointed Ned Beatty victim figure because he fits the rugged outdoorsy mould least well.

That said, I appreciate the way Bruckner boils down the theme of men facing middle-age and mortality’s terror in varying states of readiness far more efficiently than Edgar Wright’s overblown The World’s End (2013) and better at disassembling the power plays behind masculine friendship than Athina Rachel Tsangari’s belaboured Chevalier (2015). Bruckner and the tight-wound cast deftly sketch homosocial jostling and squabbling, the rhythm of these pals' jokes and accepted variations on familiar insults, the suggestion that a lot of male friendships are often rooted in a complex game of truth-telling and jockeying for ascendancy, played out with a smiling face. The smile gives way with the anxiety of being unmanned before their mates, as Hutch admits fiercely after he awakens from the first nightmare soaked in his own urine and quivering before shadows. The festering suspicion and resentment regarding Luke’s behaviour during Robert’s murder eventually hatches out to provoke quarrels and blows, aggravation and resentment growing in concert with the purple bruises and nagging pains in Dom’s leg. 

The way hallucination and dreams infuse the men’s perception of their situation is also handled smartly, gaining surreal verve from images where the the bottle shop environs, all hard lines and lighting and mottled commercial colour, dissolves into the woodland murk, and a bloodcurdling late sequence where one sees his wife by his wife when we all know it’s actually the Jotun. Bruckner also makes effective use of camera perspective tied to his characters’ travails. The reveal, early in the film, when Luke spots the liquor store owner lying bruised and cowering unnoticed behind the counter, wields the dizzying quality of being totally blindsided by life. It also sets up a visual pattern that sees much of the film tethered to Luke’s viewpoint, including the nightmare sequences, his anxious attempts to make out vague things in the distance that prove to be deeply unsettling, and queasily maintaining focus on him as he’s forced to listen to friends consumed or beaten by their various adversaries.

The climax’s scenes of escape and battle are again a little basic in terms of how it all plays out, but Bruckner builds real excitement and a sense of mounting horror in his heroes’ predicament. He relishes drawing the curtain on moments of momentous strangeness, like an attic filled with wheezing, diminutive homunculi, and the revelation of the monster itself, a colossal chimera roughly assembled like some kind has carved pieces of various action figures and assembled them, but with two small, peering eyes. Strong performances are also a plus, particularly from Spall, who’s believable as the character with an elusive quality of backbone his friends, even the more swaggering and successful ones, rely on, their bonds shaken when it seems to have been found wanting but proving in the end the only bulwark against submission to raw chaos. Which, in a way, makes The Ritual closer kin to The Deer Hunter (1978) than the mindless freaky stuff of The Blair Witch Project (1999), which its narrative resembles down to the creepy folk-art fixtures and mysterious sigils carved in trees. The Ritual is one of those frustrating projects where its very conventionality is part of its pleasure whilst provoking the sense it could have amounted to more.

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