Assessing David Bruckner’s The Ritual will reveal which aspects of the movie-making process the viewer values most. If you are concerned with how effectively the director and cinematographer capture mood and visuals, The Ritual is an unexpected feast of a Netflix horror-thriller, lushly appointed and majestically framed. But if greater importance is given to the familiarity of this story and the gaps in its uninspiring screenplay, then The Ritual will simply be described as a derivative trek into the woods with some thin, unrealized characters. Any score one ultimately assigns to this film is a compromise that answers the question: How much do its narrative flaws manage to undermine its directorial promise?
The Ritual is a British horror film newly arrived on Netflix in the U.S., in a case of timing that could lead some writers to inevitably compare it to the Super Bowl-promoted The Cloverfield Paradox, a film that received a chilly welcome, heavily criticized for its nonsensical tendencies. It’s not really a fair comparison, obviously, as they’re radically different films: Where The Cloverfield Paradox is an overly ambitious jumble of disparate genres and scientific bombast, The Ritual doesn’t possess much ambition to speak of in terms of its story or script. That doesn’t exactly bode well for a film that is meant to be character-driven, but Bruckner mostly salvages the movie with sheer style and competence.
A prime example of what might be termed the “bro horror” subgenre, The Ritual’s characters are a band of lifelong mates united in mourning a friend who has recently been killed in a brutal liquor store robbery. Luke (Rafe Spall) is the member of the group who shoulders the greatest burden of guilt, being the only one who was in the store at the time, paralyzed with indecision and cowardice while he watched his friend die. The other members clearly blame Luke for this to varying degrees, and one senses that their decision to journey to Sweden for a hiking trip deep into the wilderness is less to honor their dead friend’s memory, and more to determine if their bond can ever be repaired, whether the recrimination stemming from the death is insurmountable.
This being a woodsy horror film in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, things immediately go the way you already know they’re going to go. The fattest, most objectionable of the bunch—you know he’s going to be trouble because he’s the only one wearing glasses—immediately twists his ankle, requiring a “shortcut” off the path and through a forest in order to reach civilization. It’s the archetype once referred to by Mystery Science Theater 3000 as “The Load,” the character who must be forcibly dragged along by everyone else, limiting the group’s overall mobility. Once in the depths of the foreboding woods, it becomes clear that something is stalking the group. Also: There’s a ritual. These are not exactly spoilers.
Where The Ritual excels is technically, in both its imagery and sound design. Cinematographer Andrew Shulkind’s crisp images and deep focus are a welcome respite from the overly dark, muddy look of so many modern horror films with similar settings (such as Bryan Bertino’s The Monster), and the forested location shots, regardless of where they may have been filmed, are uniformly stunning. Numerous shots of tree clusters evoke Celtic knot-like imagery, these dense puzzles of foliage clearly hiding dire secrets, and we are shown just enough through the film’s first two thirds to keep the mystery palpable and engaging. Bruckner, who is best known for directing well-regarded segments of horror anthologies such as V/H/S, The Signal and Southbound, demonstrates a talent here for suggestion and subtlety, aided by some excellent sound design that emphasizes every rustling leaf and creaking tree branch. One wonders why it’s taken so long for someone to give him the keys to directing a full feature film, after segments like V/H/S’s “Amateur Night” were deemed good enough to make into a 2016 feature (which Bruckner produced).
Unfortunately, though, The Ritual can’t quite sustain the atmosphere of its first two acts. As our group shrinks and the film’s monster comes into the light, figuratively and literally, it loses significant mystique—although we should give props for one of the weirder, more unsettling monster designs in recent memory. More importantly, though, the film’s characters are steadily rendered meaningless. Only Luke is afforded any true characterization, and his entire arc can be summed up in a single word: “guilt.” The others are empty shells, ultimately less alive than the stick-and-branch effigies they discover in the abandoned cabin where they spend the night. It’s integral to this story that their bond be profound. Instead, it’s hollow.
Here’s hoping that for his next project, Bruckner will make it a priority to first find a story that needs to be told.
Director: David Bruckner
Writer: Joe Barton
Starring: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton
Release Date: February 9, 2018, on Netflix
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing