The Ritual (2017)

The Ritual first published by Sight & Sound, November 2017

Review: Regardless of where it ends, the starting point of David Bruckner’s The Ritual is a tangled forest of grief, loss and guilt from which its characters will struggle to emerge. As five one-time English university friends, now approaching middle age, discuss where they will spend a holiday weekend together, two of them – Luke (Rafe Spall) and Robert (Paul Reid) – enter an off licence where an armed robbery is taking place. Robert is clubbed to death before the eyes of Luke, who is cowering behind a shelf, too terrified to intervene. Although The Ritual is adapted (by Joe Barton) from Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel of the same name, significantly this prefatory episode with all-new character Robert, and the dark psychological shadow which it casts over all that follows, is entirely of Barton’s invention.

Six months later, Luke, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Dom (Sam Troughton) are hiking in Sweden – the destination and activity that had been Robert’s choice – and ritualistically saying farewell to their deceased friend. When the four decide to take a shortcut on their way back to civilisation, the film shifts into the more generic territories of deep, dark woods, spooky cabins, cultic communities, and a (brilliantly realised) ancient creature that is a malign variant on the Spirit of the Forest from Princess Mononoke (1997). On their way, they pass an old abandoned combi van like the one from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), pagan sigils straight out of The Blair Witch Project (1999), and a buried tent that is evidently all that remains of the sort of massacre familiar from a whole spree of campsite slashers. There is even, towards the end, a follow shot of an axe-wielding Luke as he limps along a side-lit path – which has clearly been modelled on a similar shot of cabin fevered Jack Torrance, on his way to kill his loved ones, in the climactic sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

While conspicuously dressed in the trappings of horror, events here all have their provenance in that ‘primal scene’ of Robert’s gruesome death, the impact of which still haunts the other four men – and the Swedish hinterlands and primordial wilderness are the arena in which they work through their trauma. Luke in particular, who was closest of the four to that death and the most scarred by his experience, regularly has visions of the forest floor transforming into the bottle shop and restaging his sense of anguished helplessness. As the hikers go on their walk on the wild side, Bruckner, already a proven talent at mind melts with his work on The Signal (2007), offers viewers several interpretative routes through the undergrowth, without ever providing a clear map. For here conventional horror and psychology trek along parallel paths, with Luke either confronting a Norse-ish god/monster, or his own inner demons – or even suffering a Torrance-style breakdown and sacrificing his friends (who he knows all think he is a coward) to restore his own battered ego so that he can come out of a massacre a hero in his own mind. The harder viewers try to see the wood for the trees, the more likely they are to get lost, making The Ritual a seductively disorienting saga of recovery.

Synopsis: England, present. Walking in on an off-licence robbery, Robert is clubbed to death before the eyes of his cowering friend Luke. Six months later, on a weekend hike in northern Sweden, Luke, Hash, Phil and Dom leave a commemorative shrine to their dead friend. When Dom injures his knee, they decide to take a shortcut through the forest. After finding a deer hanging, eviscerated, between two trees, they seek refuge from the rain in a cabin with a strange wooden effigy in its attic. After a night of very disturbing nightmares, the four head off shaken and confused, reluctant to discuss their uncanny experiences, and discover a campsite buried around 1984. That night, as Luke dreams that the forest transforms into the off-licence, Hutch is snatched from his tent. Later the three find Hutch’s corpse, hanging and gutted. Something hunts them down, and hangs Phil. Luke and Dom flee to a cabin whose human inhabitants hold them captive. Dom is bound to a stake outside, where a reindeer-like god impales him onto a tree. Luke is offered eternal life if he will bow before the god, but instead fights it with shotgun and  axe, and escapes the forest.

© Anton Bitel