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Non-Review Review: The Ritual

The Ritual is a fairly conventional horror movie that is slightly elevated by a number of nice touches.

The Ritual is pretty predictable piece of horror, at least in the broad strokes. A group of friends set out on an international adventure together, tracking into the wild. The group is tied together by a common loss, but there are all manner of silent (and not so silent) resentments simmering beneath the surface. Journeying to Sweden, the quartet embark upon a hike into the wilderness. When fate intervenes, and forces them to cut their trip short, they make a choice to take a turn off the beaten track. They quickly come to regret that particular decision.

The Ritual belongs to a familiar genre of modern horror, the tale of adult friends who wander off into the wilderness and find themselves confronted by something primal and horrific; The Descent, The Blair Witch, Cabin Fever. Of course, these are all the descendants of classic horror movies offering similar warnings about daring to wander off the beaten track; The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is very little in the basic form of The Ritual that will catch many audience members off-guard, even in the jump scares.

The Ritual is elevated by technique, by attention to detail from writer Joe Barton and director David Bruckner. The Ritual never catches the audience off guard by zigging when one might expect it to zag, but it occasionally teases the possibility of zigging. There are any number of little touches that charm, minor subversions of horror movie conventions that enrich the more predictable beats. The film looks impressive, is paced nicely, and is very well cast. While none of this allows The Ritual to transcend its more stock qualities, it does add up to a well-made film.

The Ritual adheres faithfully to all the necessary horror movie clichés, which are part of the genre’s contract with the audience. In a horror movie, characters must transgress before they can be punished. The characters must make a bad decision of some description, so that there might be a karmic element to the wrath visited upon them. The group must crack under pressures that are as much internal as external, so that the violence against them feels in some way a reflection of pre-existing tensions.

The Ritual is full of moments where characters make bad decisions that exist primarily to further the plot, to justify the inevitable confrontation with a monstrous evil in an isolated Scandinavian wilderness. In fact, The Ritual takes a great deal of pleasure in literalising these transgressions; fallen tree trunks and branches are scattered before our characters, marking wooden boundaries over which these explorers must cross so that they might be punished by the primal forces lurking in the woods.

The characters in The Ritual make their decisions from the big book of bad horror movie choices; they stray from the beaten path, they stay overnight in a creepy shack with decidedly pagan interior decorating. As with most movies in the genre, it feels a little bit like The Ritual is railroading these characters down a branching path of bad decisions. Like a lot of horror movies, The Ritual seems to unfold in a world where none of the characters has ever actually seen a horror film. This is a pragmatic narrative choice, a necessity to get the story moving.

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Most of The Ritual is clean and efficient. It is very effectively constructed, taking great care to ensure that its central characters have have very clear driving arcs and that the action fits as part of that. The Ritual is a streamlined horror narrative. For all that its characters wind up disoriented and lost, The Ritual never loses sight of where it is heading. This focus and efficiency can be something of a mixed blessing. As effective as The Ritual might be, there are also moments where it seems very blunt and a little cliché.

However, The Ritual benefits from a number of smaller touches along the way. For all that the characters make poor decisions at various points in the narrative, The Ritual makes a point to have them avoid a few even worse choices along the way. There are several points in the movie where it seems like the characters are poised to make their situation even worse, drawn towards a second creepy shack or a set of mysterious footprints leading deeper into the forest. Cleverly, The Ritual includes several nice moments where the characters decline to follow these little hints.

While stopping to drink some water, Luke notices some tracks leading away. Given that the group has been isolated for several days, and has come to suspect that something is stalking them through the forest, Luke is naturally curious. Dom notices Luke drifting away from the pack. “We shouldn’t follow those,” Dom states, articulating a thought running through the head of every audience member. The words seem to bring Luke back to reality. “Okay,” he concedes, and the group continues on their way. The tracks are left unexplored.

Most of these moments are relatively small in the grand scheme of things, and The Ritual ultimately ends up almost exactly where the audience thinks that it might. However, there is something very clever about their intrusion, a nodding sense of the movie allowing its characters some small moments of reasonable decision-making even as the situation escalates around them. Joe Barton’s script is never distractingly self-aware or winking, but it understands cliché enough to know which conventions it needs to hit, and which it can play with along the way.

During one particularly tense moment, Luke and Dom take cover behind a tree trunk as something menaces them from the darkness. Dom is freaking out a little bit, while Luke is (barely) holding it together. “Do you think it’s coming back?” Dom gasps, seemingly on the verge of a heart attack and desperately looking for validation. There is a beat, Luke more confused by the question than worried about the answer. “Yes,” he responds, simply, acknowledging the self-evident. There are a number of such no-nonsense beats in The Ritual, moments that play just a little beyond expectations.

Director David Bruckner brings The Ritual to life with considerable skill. The Ritual looks and feels eerie, with Bruckner making sure to cram the film with uncanny visuals and unsettling juxtapositions. There are points when it seems like the group has strayed into some halfway realm between the waking world and the land of nightmares, where elements of Luke’s mental landscape begin to interspace themselves with the natural environment. The effect is subtly unnerving, adding an interesting layer of horror on top of a familiar wilderness setting.

More than that, there is something endearingly gonzo about the movie’s final act, when Bruckner and Barton throw all manner of horror movie conventions into a blender and distill the resulting mix. The film’s climax begins with a rather clumsy exposition dump from a minor character that lays out what exactly is happening in great detail, to the point that it’s surprising that the leads aren’t presented with a brochure. However, once the finale kicks off, The Ritual moves with enough verve and energy that it bounds across the finish line.

The Ritual is not an exceptional horror movie. It is far too conventional to break out from the pack of wilderness horror films, the ground it covers is too well trodden. At the same time, there is something to be said for the care taken in the execution and the attention paid to the finer details along the way.

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