The Ritual (Netflix, 2018)

As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

The Ritual (2018)

Netflix

Director: David Bruckner

Writer: Joe Barton. Based on the novel by Adam Nevill

The Terrifying Conclusion of Spooky Streaming Month

 

      The Ritual has a lot going for it. A scenic yet spooky setting in a Sweden forest and a sense of atmosphere and mystery, but isn’t quite able to pull it together into something more. It works as a more conventionally shot version of The Blair Witch Project, supernatural goings on in the forest, but never achieves anything as instantly iconic as that film. The climax also reminded me of a much subdued The Apostle, but without the willingness to go all out on a bloody final battle, and more explanatory. It never quite goes off the rails, but also never reaches greatness and gets a little lost towards the end.

      The film begins with five friends–Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Robert (Paul Reid)–meeting in a pub to discuss plans for a vacation together. They had all been friends in college, but have started to lose touch and plan to reconnect by taking a trip together. The initial suggestions are for a Hangover-esque bacchanal–Las Vegas, Amsterdam, etc–but Robert suggests, that instead of middle-aged drunken revelry, they go on a big hiking trip in Sweden. His plan is quickly shot down. After leaving the pub, Luke wants to buy a bottle of Vodka from a convenience store to keep the party going, and while everybody else demurs,Robert goes in with him. While going through the aisles, they realize that the store is in the middle of being robbed. Two armed robbers emerge from the back, and Luke hides. Luke considers rushing out swinging with a bottle of Vodka, but ultimately remains hiding while the robbers confront and kill Robert. Thus, the plan for one last party becomes a hiking trip dedicated to Roberts memory.

      For the most part, the foursome does not particularly enjoy hiking. Hutch, who seems to be a de-facto leader, takes everything in good humor, while Luke goes through out of a sense of obligation, a way to process his feelings of guilt for Robert’s death. Dom complains all the time, and injures his knee. Phil is also there. After Dom’s injury, they decide to cut their time in half by taking a shortcut through a forest. Luke points out that, as short as it may be, going off-trail through the forest may not be the best idea, but the injured Dom votes for whichever option gets them to the lodge at the end of the trail the quickest, and into the forest they go.

       The film makes great use of the Swedish countryside. Beautiful, yet fog-shrouded shots of expansive valleys and rolling hills, which are suitably mysterious. Once they enter the forest, the film makes use of sound design, for an unnatural stillness. The forest itself doesn’t look particularly creepy–not gothic twisted branches–until a monster appears, almost imperceptible in the distance. Then, you can’t help but to scan the edges of the frame, waiting for any tree to suddenly move.

       Things in the forest take a turn when the group find a gutted elk impaled in the high branches of a tree. They decide to press on, finding ancient symbols carved into a tree, and an abandoned cabin in the woods. A rainstorm comes in, and they decide to squat for the night in the cabin. They are unsettled by the cabin’s general creepiness, and even more when they find a Nordic shrine to what appears to be a headless man with antlers for hands. They still decide that the cabin is better than the rain, and spend the night. They all have nightmares, with Luke reliving Roberts death, then waking up outside with three scars on his chest. Dom is covered in sweat screaming his wife’s name, Hutch has peed himself, and Phil is naked and praying to the shrine in the attic.

      Viewing films through the prism of toxic masculinity is almost a cliche, but the groups masculine self-image coming up short does seem to be the dominant theme. What starts the plot, even before they decide to go on a hike, is a desire to forget about the staid responsibilities of middle age–family, career–and recreate their bachelorhood of their youth, of late nights and excessive drinking. While at least half the group is married, the plan for a “lads holiday” as they rather Britishly call it, would include naked women as well. Luke starts as an eternally immature hard partying type, an overgrown frat bro. The rest of the group is a bit more settled down, but share a similar attitude. After the opening, Robert’s death turns Luke into someone more serious and mature, but he still interprets his guilt as shame over an act of cowardice. In an argument, Dom calls Luke a coward for not trying to help Robert, and specifically calls out Luke emerging from the store without a drop of blood on him–the implication being that Luke should have bravely charged into battle against two armed robbers, wildly swinging a bottle of liquor as his weapon. Mutating Luke’s guilt about Robert’s death into an allegation of cowardice is an argument for short-sighted violence in the name of bravery. The film is somewhat agnostic on this–when one of the group goes missing, Luke charges blindly in the night to find them, while Dom eventually argues that this doesn’t make sense, and the better plan is for them to go back to their campsite to take stock. Yet Luke continues to have nightmares of being called a coward, up until he finally faces off against the monster.

       The third act finds what remains of the group being captured by a cult in the woods that worships the monster. While the presence of people in the woods had been foreshadowed throughout the film, it is still a big shift to go from a monster sneaking around the woods to a cult chaining people in a basement. The highest ranking member of the cult is a old woman, with the same three scars on her chest that Luke has. This section has the monster came more into focus–instead of lurking at the edges of the forest, it now comes forward for a close-up. The design is interesting, taking elements that would probably be mashed together in an old myth–”The forest god, with the body of a an elk, but the legs of a man, and a torso for a head”–but combined into a cohesive whole. It’s not stated in the film, but per the novel the monster is female.

       The all-male group coming finding themselves battling a female-led cult worshipping an angry female monster is a potentially interesting concept, which isn’t explored at all. Instead of doing anything with a group of overgrown frat bros finding themselves at the mercy of women, we just get exposition about the monster. It is the bastard child of Loki–I just finished reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, so this reveal carried a lot more baggage than it might for the average viewer with only a passing knowledge of Norse myths–and grants immunity from aging to her followers in the forest, in exchange for worship and sacrifice. Luke’s scars are an invitation to join the cult.

       Even with the change in genre, the film maintains tension, but the exposition kills the sense of mystery that was driving the film. An inexplicable monster haunting the woods is a scarier concept than an obscure Nordic god. Whatever theme that emerged from the female antagonists doesn’t really translate from the novel, and they are little more than just another obstacle for the protagonists to overcome.

       The Ritual has potential for greatness, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The characterization is thin, the central foursome not really rising above typical monster in the woods fodder. The execution is very competent, but lacks the verve to push beyond what’s been done in other films. There are some ideas that could have made for a truly great horror film–the deconstruction of masculinity theme, the monster being able to cast illusions and influence dreams–that are not explored.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem