Five mates—Luke, Phil, Hutch, Dom, Robert—discuss vacation options at a pub. Later that evening, Luke tries to convince the others to join him in purchasing more booze at a convenience store, and Robert finally agrees. Tragedy ensues. Six months later, when four of the original group undertake a three-day hike on the King’s Trail in Northern Sweden, the past resurfaces in a visceral way.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this horror film, cannily directed by David Bruckner and based on a gripping novel by Adam Nevill. For one, we get economic but compelling character development. A few short scenes do much to suggest the basic attitudes, beliefs and temperaments of the four leads, and their dialogue feels refreshingly naturalistic. If it weren’t for the events at the convenience store, the first twenty minutes could be the start of a Ken Loach film tackling friendship amongst men, or perhaps a Mike Leigh dramedy about middle age. It takes a while for the horror to kick in, and I thought the build-up was terrific. Also, even when the situation darkens—Dom hurts his leg, making the original hiking plan intractable, and Hutch suggests a shortcut through the forest—the dialogue remains without affectation, leading to moments of unexpected levity that double as meta-textual nods to films conversant with this narrative (The Blair Witch Project, Wicker Man, Evil Dead, The Witch, The Monster and even Kill List, to name a few).
Then too, the dramatic interweaving of the characters’ pasts with the present is critical to the plot, so that unfolding events inform our understanding of these four psyches and the psyches in turn inform our understanding of events. This effect is reinforced by absorbing performances by Robert James-Collier as the alpha-leader Hutch, Sam Troughton as the more sensitive Dom, and particularly, in a mostly understated turn, Rafe Spall as the outsider-in-their-midst Luke.
Other standout elements include the stunning locations, lighting, photography, and Ben Lovett’s alternatingly dissonant, pulsating and melodic score. Most of the production design is in fact above average, with the forest scenes being particularly effective in conveying claustrophobia and disorientation. Other reviewers have praised the sound design as well, but for me this was actually a misstep. The first time Luke hears a growl/rumble in the forest, as the group is breaking in to a seemingly abandoned house for shelter from a storm, I was pulled out of the film’s experience. How much more frightening, I thought, would be an entity that observes and stalks without the need of boorishly announcing its own presence.
As for the story itself, I’m perhaps not completely sold. About two thirds in, the film shifts its focus and I found the transition interesting but also distancing. The glimpses we see through Luke’s discovery of the threat that has been pursuing the group inside the forest raise questions to which the film suggests only vague answers. Unfortunately, in this final act the film also sacrifices some of that storytelling concision I was mentioning in favor of exposition. The very final scene, while is surely intended in a cathartic sense, felt underwhelmingly executed.
The Ritual rewards careful watching, and as much as my suspension of disbelief was stretched past the breaking point during the end, I can still appreciate the craft that went into making this movie. While the group is consulting one of the maps early on, for example, text on the fold-out announces “förbjudet område för terränggående”, which in Swedish translates as something like “a forbidden area for trekkers.” Or check out the symbols the group discovers on trees: runes, hinting at the pagan nightmare to follow.
Now let’s talk about this monster, “one of the Jötunn”, from the “pastoral spring of Loki”. The creature design is visually arresting; the way it seems to appear different in each scene, yet springing from the same framework, is a nice way of conveying the subjectivity of each character’s terror. Now, looks are great, but what does this Jötunn actually do? In the words of one of the villagers who stops to give Luke an anthropological mini-lecture: “It keeps us here. Let’s us live beyond natural life. No more pain. No more death.” We’re to understand, I take it, that Luke, who had been marked by the creature earlier in the cabin, is to complete this ritual and become one with the villagers. Understandably, he has different ideas. Looking at the villager’s clothes and skin, I too might be reluctant to check in to their motley crew—particularly forever. But let’s pretend for a moment that such superficial repugnance weren’t a factor. How appealing is the idea, really, of spending eternity in a small village, knowing that you must forever bow, literally and metaphorically, to an inhuman creature that feeds on the flesh of your less fortunate peers? How often do stray hikers get trapped here, that the Jötunn can satisfy its apparently voracious appetite? During the couple of days chronicled in the movie, it consumes at least three people. Plus that freshly gutted animal they discover shortly after entering the forest. Given the size of the village, these folks would need to be having babies or luring in really desperate Airbnb-hunters on an almost daily basis to keep this monster sated.
Also, given the premise of life eternal, isn’t it dreary to imagine it in such a dour and isolated environment? More importantly, if the tyrannical, obeisance-demanding Jötunn truly does remove all pain from existence, how can one then hope to grow and improve as an individual, to overcome challenges and experience the associated satisfaction? I can’t believe this day would ever come, but I’m going to quote Kirk in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: “Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
The whole affair seems not only unbelievable but also tawdry. I suspect Bruckner wants it to come across that way, so that we’ll side with Luke in his rejection of this way of life. The more interesting element of the pseudo-Faustian bargain to me is the insight it gives into Luke. Like Kirk, Luke’s not ready to forgo his angst, his culpability over the death of Robert, and it’s this need to process the trauma on his own terms that precludes any possibility of Jötunn-mania on his part.
Ultimately, I suppose none of this matters overmuch. The Ritual is an aesthetically satisfying and engaging film that empathetically frames up complex characters and doesn’t skim on the complexities of their interrelationships. I particularly loved the way that, for Luke, the forest hybridized into the convenience store and the recurring horrors within.
Going deeper into this dissolution of the borders between realities, I think, could have made for a more memorable picture. Still, I’m pretty satisfied with the one we have.