Five friends who have known each other from their university days reunite in a pub to discuss destination options for a lads’ holiday amid their busy adult lives, bouncing off options ranging from Amsterdam, to Tuscany, to Belgium (“no one’s ever been to Belgium by choice”).
After they leave the pub, Luke (Rafe Spall) heads into a liquor store along with Rob (Paul Reid). Inside, they run into a pair of robbers, which resulted in Rob’s death. In honour of their friend, the remaining four decide to head off to Sweden and go hiking, as Rob suggested back in the pub. When, in the middle of their hike, one of them sustains an injury, the group decides to take a shortcut through the woods, where they encounter gutted animals hanging off trees, odd symbols, and unnerving signs that something quite large might just be following them.
This is the plot of Netflix’s latest horror offering, The Ritual. While the lost-in-the-woods type of story is not what one would call original, director David Bruckner manages to craft an eerie and suspenseful film, taking full advantage of the deceptively beautiful Scandinavian landscape.
The film is built upon the dynamic between the four friends. The definitively English dialogue between the characters builds the camaraderie and humour up, but leaves enough gaps to show where the friction may or may not be between them.
Credit also to Spall, whose quietly assured performance just about bleeds through Luke’s pain and guilt, as he was the one with Rob when he died, and he couldn’t stop that from happening. Also notable was Robert James-Collier’s turn as the charismatic and likeable Hutch.
The second act of the film is a masterclass in building tension by Bruckner, utilising genre tropes and infusing them with surrealistic moments and a touch of finesse and subtlety. This is where the building of the characters’ relationship comes into play, as each character, Spall’s in particular, are subjected to their deepest fears and insecurities, which are not only serves to terrify the audience, but also to strongly impact their relationship with one another. The film opts to use quieter scares and more personal terror to the characters as opposed to just going the usual bump-in-the-night routine.
The strength of all this builds enough goodwill for the film’s third act, where it transitions from a fairly straightforward horror-thriller to a more cultist affair, where the tension of the previous act is replaced with a more immediate sense of dread. Whereas the shift does separate the film from what made it great, it’s done smoothly enough to buy into. What was previously hidden in the shadows emerges in this act, and while some might prefer their horror movie villains remain in the dark, the execution in here is the right pay-off to what was previously built up.
The Ritual combines a straightfoward horror formula with powerful undercurrent of emotional baggage, with splashes of other horror subgenres around it. It is a haunting film, with immaculate direction, impressive creature design, as well as well-acted and well-realised characters.
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