Can the purveyor of a solid piece of genre cinema be raked over the coals for requiring external reading as a prerequisite for maximum appreciation? Should the full enjoyment of a film be contingent on supplemental knowledge whereby the lack thereof proves detrimental? Was my deficient background on the lore present indeed consequential? Should one’s toil and labor be subject to such conditional scrutiny? These were the inquiries that arose between watching and revisiting The Ritual, thanks to a YouTube “Explained.” If anything, I missed the opening twenty minutes the first time, and my curiosity to experience the film in whole should speak of some merit. Somewhere in this conflicting piece was a decent film, though, first, I had to squabble with the role of belated foreknowledge in the re-watch.
David Bruckner, whose filmography features horrors exclusively, has a peculiar inclination toward collaborative directorial projects. Those can be utterly incoherent works and I will not change my mind about Bruckner’s solo effort today. Here, he gets to showcase his talent unrestrained by multiple perspectives and the result is a somewhat serious film that is at times credible and assured while being too intelligent for its own good. Adapted from a novel bearing the same name, Bruckner makes one major alteration (an amateur death metal band in the woods?) suggesting an awareness to discern the fluff unsuited for the cinematic medium. Coupled with the grand reveal arriving in the final ten minutes without the hint of a frantic dash for the audience’s interest, one must pause in acknowledgement of a craftsman willing to live and die by their own convictions.
A British quintet of college buddies (now middle-aged) get together for their annual tradition involving travel or adventure. One is missing, having died in robbery he and protagonist Luke (Rafe Spal) walked in on during a spontaneous liquor run. It is the sort of inopportune tragedy sure to arouse tremendous grief from what-ifs alone, more so for Luke’s survival guilt. Though barely a fitting sendoff, a hiking trip along Sweden’s picturesque King’s Trail dedicated in his honor is a good start were it not for the elephant in the room—Luke’s inaction while he got attacked—getting re-summoned. It is a recursive torment for the inconsolable Luke where the murder scene (i.e. the liquor store) is transported to the forest. If that rendition distracts from the action, it is more so in style than tone.
At first nightfall, a rainstorm forces the group into an abandoned cabin. Mysterious runes hang from the beams inside and mark the trees outside. Consequently, everyone experiences visions but Bruckner only delves into Luke’s, relying on exposition to reveals the others’, instead; one cries his wife’s name; another wets his pants; a third prostrates himself naked before a ghastly effigy. Luke’s nightmare is given a fuller cinematic depiction; awaking outside the cabin with puncture wounds in his chest he does not divulge immediately. All in all, a disturbing jolt but a brisk sequence as to not linger too long on one scene as when another cabin is encountered, no one hints at having possibly ran in circles despite an ominous force manipulating their bearings and keeping them trapped. No less, as with the pissing episode, the less things are talked about, it seems, the better.
The Ritual is an exercise in suppression and delayed—if not denied—catharsis. The suppression of emotions and withheld details work in tandem on the cognitive condition of characters under psychological duress. Midsommar, another Norse setting, would revisit the grief angle as a catalyst. Here, it is a determinant. This group was only forced into a shortcut and through the woods when one of them got injured. He is also the most vocal antagonizer of Luke’s implicit culpability, a worst kept secret among them. On the surface, the rest are of a harmonious disposition. In reality, they’re going along to get along although Bruckner makes a point of the festering feud and frayed tempers taking center stage.
A creepy mélange of The Blair Witch Project (a forest as a sinister domain), The Descent (group bonding over adventure), The Witch (a mythic entity preying on intruders), and, to a lesser degree, The Wicker Man (isolated subgroups reverting to pre-Christian religions) and The Shining (haunting elements working differently on each character) without appearing as derivative is an achievement. The faculty to craft a working amalgamation is laudable except it is the offending treatment of Nordic lore which hinders the film. Still, featuring a perfectly teased out cryptid, the suspense is maintained without major distractions and the mood is interrupted by a jarring lull it recovers from with a satisfying ending. The film does not transcend standard fare precisely because elevating its legend to esoteric knowledge makes it inaccessible and exclusive.