The Ritual reminded me of the times I used to go camping when I was a kid. I like the sound of that, “used to”. You see, whenever we went camping it was in our “backyard”, and it was probably one of the more dangerous things we did. My backyard was literally a rainforest, and it took a bit of a hike to get to our favorite clearing. Once our tents were set up, we were on to the fun and adventure of eating something that made us sick, getting bit by something that threatened our life, or sometimes we went all “Lord of the Flies” and started turning on one another. Man, it was great.
There was one time where we felt like some creature was stalking us. It rattled bushes, made scary guttural noises, and tore through our camp in this big black blur! BLACK PAW is here for us! We huddled together and hoped whatever it was would leave us be, eventually all of us falling asleep. In the morning, our little band of terrified kids had one more in the huddle, a giant black lab with a doggy grin on its ketchup and mustard stained face. Ferocious monster indeed. This is the memory in my life that I go to when I’m about to enjoy a “scary in the woods” kind of movie. When I was preparing myself for Netflix’s latest drop, The Ritual, I wanted them to have every opportunity to scare me like I was back then. However, it’s always a little safer to remind yourself that the monster in the woods isn’t quite what you think.
After a night of drinking, tragedy strikes a group of college friends. In honor of a fallen comrade, the survivors head off to the lovely and picturesque mountains of Sweden for a hike and camping. The seemingly successful and most put-together friend – who also happens to be clumsy and hurts his knee – forces the group to take a shortcut through the woods to get him to safety. Once in the dire darkness of these Swedish woods, our intrepid heroes start to notice that their surroundings might be amiss. In fact, a dark presence seems to be lurking just out of view.
Right now, you might be asking yourself, “where’s the ritual?”, but fear not. There are a few of them contained within the narrative, and if you are a dummy like me, you might forget that the trip itself happens to be one as well. It’s a thinking man’s title, and I’m just not used to that. Okay?
The story starts you off with a wonderful punch to the gut to set the mood. Then it affords you an opportunity to get to know the rest of the players, and these characters cover the spectrum from unlikeable to likeable. At times I was oddly reminded of Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End”, but more with the archetypes we were playing with rather than the story. The writer, Joe Barton, makes wonderful work with moving the story along, raising the stakes, playing the audience’s imaginations against them.
Only when we get to the payoff does the story seems to wobble a little. We get so much out of the final moments of the movie, that when it ends it feels like it does just that: End, Full Stop, Punto Final, I guess I’ll just be on my way then. Maybe that’s a strike against the movie or maybe it says more about how I enjoyed it, because I ultimately wanted more.
The tourism board of Sweden should pay director David Bruckner some sort of fee for what he managed to pull off in this horror movie. I know I am supposed to be scared. I know that there is something going on in these woods and it’s not going to be good for anyone involved. I see people dying in horrific ways. Yet, the film is shot so beautifully and invitingly that I still want to venture there. I want to lay my own eyes on that amazing countryside. The production team does a wonderful trick in the story of bringing in urban settings mixed in with the lush woods; an effect that feels genuinely seamless. And let us not forget the creature design, which is both fantastically imaginative and unsettling.
What about our intrepid heroes? Well, first you have Luke (Rafe Spall). Spall plays Luke quiet, but jerky. He is a bit insufferable, to be honest, but Rafe keeps the viewer interested, giving us all time to see how his journey progresses. Arsher Ali’s Phil and Sam Troughton’s Dom serve as this story’s C3-PO and R2-D2. I’ll let you decide who is who. They bring a little comic relief, serve as great victims and, well, one is tall and skinny and the other is a bit more squat. Robert James-Collier’s Hutch was a shock to me. I saw his face, heard his voice, and it killed me because I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. Then it hit me: It’s Tom from Downton Abbey! I hate that guy! The actor, however, had convinced me that if I were to get lost in the woods, I better have Hutch at my side if I expect to live. Well, him or the Terminator. In this story, I have Hutch and everything is going to be great!
Right now it may feel like Netflix is all over the board. Dropping a major cinematic show to rival Game of Thrones in Altered Carbon. Only to then drop the widely panned Cloverfield sequel a few short days later, taking the wind right out of its big budget show’s sails. To then drop The Ritual a few short days after that, how does it all fit?
Who cares?! Netflix delivers on its promise of great content with The Ritual. I am at the age where it is easier and easier to remember that the bump in the night, that scary thing in the woods, that presence that just won’t leave you alone; most often it is simply a big goofy dog.
The Ritual reminded me there is always a chance, however slim, it could be something far more sinister.
Starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton
Screenplay by Joe Barton
Directed by David Bruckner