Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: The Ritual

Netflix has been spending millions on original content for a while now, eager to become an entertainment destination unto themselves and not just a place for binge-watching old sitcoms. There have been massive successes (Stranger Things), and some obvious failures (anything Adam Sandler gave them). But when they pick up a low-budget horror flick from a newbie director featuring no big stars and a story steeped in Norse mythology, it's reasonable to assume it's a movie one should skip. This is one of those situations where it feels so good to be wrong. Let's get lost in The Ritual.

This tagline was changed before release, following the tragic shooting in the city of Las Vegas.
The story centers on Luke (Rafe Spall), an emotionally disabled man who's reeling with guilt from an incident 6 months prior. While his friend Rob met his death in a liquor store at the hands of a minor perp, Luke cowered behind a shelving unit, clutching a bottle of vodka like a security blanket. As a tribute to their fallen friend, Luke and the rest of the gang -Phil, Hutch, and Dom- are hiking through the wilds of Scandinavia, something Rob had always wanted to do. No one is talking about what Luke did (or rather, didn't do) in the liquor store when Rob was killed, but it's on their minds.

When Dom experiences an injury that drastically slows him and the group down, it's suggested they cut the trip in half by traveling as the crow flies and taking a shortcut directly through the forest. What begins as an adventure in brotherly hiking quickly turns into a creepfest, as the men encounter pagan cabins, stunningly realistic nightmares, and a predator unlike anything they've ever seen in front of or behind their eyes. And all the while, old regrets keep bubbling to the surface, like bad booze...

The Ritual is one of those films that will either delight or exhaust you depending on how many horror films you've seen. What I mean to say is, it's not a particularly original plot, and the individual story beats will be pretty recognizable too. There's echoes of The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, The Hills Have Eyes, even Jaws. But the movie does everything so well, and so confidently, I just didn't care. Director David Bruckner does a wonderful job with his first feature-length, knowing just how long to hold the camera, when to let the actors do the heavy lifting, when to show the monster in full.

Oh yes, there is a monster. If you have better than average knowledge of Norse mythology, you may be able to see where the story is going by the halfway point, but that doesn't spoil the incredible reveal. The general consensus online is that The Ritual's big bad boasts the best creature design in years if not decades, and I have to agree. A truly original beastie, with a clever mix of practical and CGI effects, you'll be hard-pressed to get it out of your mind. I'm not going to share it here, you have to see it for yourself.

Your mileage on the human antagonists may vary, as they definitely repeat a lot of what's come before, with less verve and imagination than the woods and the creature. Still, the discovery Luke makes in the attic is a highlight of the film. The best thing about the script is how smartly it deployed comedy. The Ritual is not a funny movie and isn't meant to be, but that just makes the two or three humorous moments land that much harder. One unexpected act of violence near the finale made me do an actual spit-take. Everyone in the cast does a fine job, straddling the line between unlikable and sympathetic with aplomb. Probably best known to Yanks as one of the 2 Andys from Hot Fuzz, Spall does a fantastic job as a leading man, and a dramatic one no less. 

Like all good movies, it's about something more, and something deeper, than just the surface narrative of a group of men getting lost in the woods and dying. The Ritual digs into things that guys have trouble articulating, even when they want to: guilt, regret, what they need to do to achieve or even feel redemption, forgiveness. Bruckner mentioned in an interview that men have much more difficulty than women not just making new friends as they get older, but maintaining the relationships they have. No one is sure EXACTLY why that is, but the specter of hurt is there on the actors' faces, and it's a large part of the story. It's not lost on me that I'm not much younger than the characters as I write this, and have dealt with this problem. A sobering tale once you dig into the themes.

All said and done, The Ritual is the first A on horror's report card for 2018, and if you're a fan of The Wicker Man crossed with the worst road trip imaginable and just a pinch of Lovecraft, you'll dig it.

The Ritual is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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