The Ritual by David Bruckner follows four men on a trek through the Swedish wilderness as they deal with the murder of one of their friends. If mourning isn’t enough, they’re also stalked and sacrificed by a pagan cult that worships a creature from Norse mythology. It stars Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton and was released through Netflix on February 9, 2018.
Phil, Dom, Hutch, and Luke are all recovering from the senseless murder of their friend Rob (Paul Reid), which Luke (Rafe Spall) witnessed. They’ve decided to go on a hike through the Kungsleden, a trail in Sweden, where they’ll pour one out for Rob and then get home. Early on in The Ritual, in the midst of the beautiful scenery, they begin to hit snags, but they’re mainly internal and interpersonal.
Luke is hit with vivid, well-shot flashbacks of Rob’s death–he’s racked with guilt because he didn’t do anything to stop it. He walked away from the scene without a drop of blood on him, while his friend died in a pool of his own. Dom (Sam Troughton) blames Luke for this, damning his friend for standing by. Hutch (Robert James-Collier, of Downton Abbey fame, in the first role I’ve liked him in) plays peacemaker and guide when they get lost and crabby.
As they wander through the forest, following the trail which will no doubt get them home (they haven’t realized this is a horror movie yet), they encounter dark phenomena in the forest: a freshly-slaughtered elk, still bleeding, is strung inexplicably high up in the trees, and they see things out of the corner of their eyes, eventually stumbling upon a cabin in the woods. With a headless idol made of branches and logs. Of course, there’s a cabin in the woods with a pagan idol in it. And they have to sleep there. In a rainstorm. Of course. And then there are the human-sacrificing pagans.
Despite the predictability of the structure, The Ritual‘s atmosphere is expertly constructed, from eerie shots of the forest, of trying to peer through the dense trees to see what’s crouching just out of sight, to the shock of Phil (Arsher Ali, criminally underused here) waking up, naked, praying to the creepy wooden idol. And the creature isn’t just a dark fantasy conjured by the freaky pagans; it’s all too real and seriously memorable. Ben Lovett’s score utilizes a persistent drum beat that not only drives the film forward, but it helps to underscore the creepiness of this film.
The Ritual boasts elements of The Blair Witch Project, but without the found footage angle; The Wicker Man, but without the idyllic island or Christopher Lee; and The Witch, but with a less fleshed-out story to fill out the 94-minute running time. David Bruckner is a standout short film director, particularly for Southbound and V/H/S, and it seems like he’s having a difficult time stretching his work into feature lengths. That’s really my only criticism here: it’s a solid short film populated by earnest actors that’s been stretched into an hour and a half. It’s got a tried-and-true premise bolstered by some deeply felt emotional and relational beats, accentuated by stark cinematography and score. But it should’ve been a short film.