On lazy shortcuts, banal deaths, and the wasted glory of a beautiful physical monstrosity
The Ritual Netflix
Director: David Bruckner
Screenplay: Joe Barton, based on the novel by Adam Nevill
Starring: Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Paul Reid and Maria Erwolter
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 2:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)
The best of The Ritual and the worst of The Ritual are one and the same. The final half-hour pays off what's been hovering about the periphery of the woods, and the psyches of the quartet of thirtysomething pals traveling through them, for most of the film. Until this point, they've simply had to speculate about who or what was leaving fresh animal carcasses strung up in the trees, or those symbols drawn on the bark - who or what kept making those distant noises and just barely eluding their line of sight.
Eventually they find out. And they're greeted with an accomplishment of production design that feels like an unholy alliance of Guillermo del Toro and Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, all draped in moonlight. If only we were allowed to just sit back and enjoy it without having to pay attention to the plot, which in this climactic segment defaults to all the laziest, least interesting choices writer Joe Barton and director David Bruckner could have possibly come up with, as if they were marking items off a "Lazy Plot Solutions" checklist. Somebody finds a resourceful way to get out of restraints, somebody finds a gun to escape with, somebody gets chased. And that's not even including the hackneyed way it all resolves. For a movie whose secret adversary is a gnarled wonder of supernatural menace, an escape/chase scenario is an embarrassing misappropriation of resources. It's like asking Giancarlo Stanton to bunt.
And so the movie concludes with a deeply frustrating crescendo that's terrific to look at but borderline impossible to do anything else with. Far from being the suffocating, ironic response to the film's preoccupation with guilt and mortality that it attempts to be, the finale instead sputters through narrative shortcuts.
As for how we get there in the first place? Well, the boys have something of a tradition. Every year - presumably since around college - they pick a new location and go on a little vacation. Debauchery, to some degree, is generally involved, although their lifestyles are beginning to slow down - which is why Rob (Paul Reid) suggests this time they do a hiking trip in Northern Sweden instead of their more traditional vacation hotspots. His idea is shot down by the rest of the boys. Except then he gets himself murdered in a convenience-store mugging, and the other four take that trip to Sweden in his honor. It means a particularly great deal to Luke (1970s Richard Dreyfuss Rafe Spall), who was with Rob in the store the moment it happened, hiding behind a shelf, trying to muster up the courage to act on his friend's behalf but waiting until it was too late.
Off they go, the fellas, stopping at the top of one mountain to create a makeshift memorial for their fallen comrade, a symbolic capstone to an unusually somber vacation. On their way back to civilization is where things go off the rails. Dom (Sam Troughton) - the wet blanket of the bunch - suffers a sprained ankle that the rest of the group is immediately certain he will not stop going on about for the rest of the trip. More to reduce their own suffering than to ease his, they decide to take a shortcut. Through the woods. Nothing to it.
They expect to make it through the woods and back into town in a day's time - with the alpha of the group, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), leading the way - but the woods have other plans. The fellas find themselves quite unexpectedly greeted by terrible weather, dead animals that seem to be ceremonially displayed, and the occasional abandoned cabin. To say nothing of their creeping inability to get a handle on their bearings. A straight-line shortcut becomes a temporally and spatially disorienting nightmare.
"Nightmare" takes on quite a literal connotation. After their first overnight in the woods - having set up camp in one of those empty cabins - they all wake up having been tormented by terrifying dreams, both intensely personal and strangely cryptic, throughout the night. None of them can just brush these nightmares off. One of them woke up in a puddle of his own urine, another kneeling in front of a mysterious religious altar. And our hero Luke ... well, he's seemingly been stabbed in the chest (shallow wounds, but still).
The film begins to settle in, with the forest as a sort of zone of consciousness designed to trap these characters - responding to their fears and anxieties, feeding back misshapen versions of them. But Bruckner is unable to transform that into an atmosphere, or a state of being. Mostly, we get scene after scene of these four old friends bitching at each other about this or that. There's not a lot of room for any mood to set in when we spend most of our time listening to these guys barking banal, repetitive arguments at each other.
What consciously occupies their time is of less relevance - to the woods, and to the film - than what's hiding out in their subconsciouses. But whatever the forest gets out of the backs of their minds, it has a hard time communicating it to us. Physical locations becoming surreal gateways to subconscious interrogation is a familiar and workable premise, but The Ritual only barely commits to the idea. Those nightmares the fellas have in the cabin? To us, they're largely irrelevant because we never get much sense of what's actually haunting them - or what they experienced in those supposedly terrifying and revealing dreams. Seeing a guy waking up in his own pass doesn't have much impact in and of itself.
The one exception to this is Luke, our de-facto lead, whose survivor's guilt - in particular his inability to save his friend's life - is the only tangible point of view we ever get. His dream, we see. And not just once. It's that moment in the convenience store playing out over and over again, in altered versions and with altered details, often physically conflated with the forest itself. But frankly, that moment isn't interesting enough, nor does it strike us as profound enough, to be the emotional and psychological through-line of an entire movie. Don't get me wrong - of course, in literal terms, seeing your friend die a violent, random death would be a wrenching memory for anyone who experienced it. But as a pivotal cinematic moment, it plays as mere routine.