While by no means a new classic; it does do everything you want a horror film to do with notable efficiency and a great deal of mood.
This is a scenario that most horror film fans will likely find familiar: A group of city-dwelling friends trek into dank unfamiliar woods, motivated either by a need to party hearty (if the protagonists are under 25) or to reclaim bygone friendship (if they are over 25). During their trek, one member of their party becomes injured or stranded, and the rest of the party slowly begins to panic when they realize they are hopelessly lost. Eventually, a rogue mutant, family of cannibals, vengeful witch, or hungry forest-dwelling critter will beset our heroes, snacking on them one by one until a single hero survives to solve the mystery of the thing attacking them.
There are myriad good versions of this story, and an almost infinite number of bad versions of this story. David Bruckner’s The Ritual, now playing on Netflix, is thankfully of the former. It is a film that languidly wrenches thrills from your brainstem, using skilled lighting and adept visual obfuscation to explore fear, grief, and the futility of malehood in equal measure. And while it does sometimes feel rote or expected (a result of its setup), The Ritual is a more patient, more soulful, and certainly more unsettling film than your average lost-in-the-woods thriller.
Four friends (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton) are taking a memorial trip through the hiking trails of Sweden in order to honor a recently downed friend who was killed in a liquor store holdup. The four men are all in their late 30s, painfully taking their first steps up the slopes of middle age, perhaps recognizing that they are less complete and less capable and less upstanding humans beings than previously assumed. Their trip is meant to express robustness, but only reveals ailing souls.
The quartet will soon find themselves faced with a lost cabin in the woods housing a bizarre pagan-like alter, and a strange growing infection of fear and intense nightmares. They will also find enormous deer carcasses hanging in trees. Was it a bear? All four of them are quick to reject the notion. What hung that deer? What was that alter? And why are wounds appearing on their bodies at night?
The answers to these questions are forthcoming by The Ritual’s climax, of course, and those familiar with [title of a similar film redacted to avoid spoilers] may perhaps predict them. Despite its particular subgenre’s notorious banality, however, The Ritual is possessed of a strikingly dark tone, not to mention a palpable thematic undercurrent of grief survival and crippling self-doubt. So many lost-in-the-woods films tend to fall back on oft-tired themes of “humanity humbled by nature’s cold indifference.” The Ritual wields its wilds to explore one of the most powerful fears of contained in the minds of middle-aged urban men: That their self-perceived machismo was never real. These characters seem to hold the (common) belief that they’ll be utterly prepared when faced with a violent threat to a close friend. They find that, when faced with an extreme situation, they will flinch 100% of the time.
The Ritual possesses some of the more striking imagery one might find in this genre’s films, including a shot late in the film where… something… is silhouetted against a burning building. What that thing is, I will leave for you to discover. Needless to say, horror fans will be marking that thing down in their mental books.
The Ritual is by no means a new classic; its novelty and skill can only elevate its predictable set-up so far. But it does do everything you want a horror film to do with notable efficiency and a great deal of mood. It has its own aesthetic thrust. And, most importantly, it bothers to be about something.