Netflix Weekly: THE RITUAL

Why do I feel like we needed The Ritual? With its release in the U.K. last year and the U.S. now, why do I feel like this is the absolute best time?

Based on the book by British novelist Adam Nevill, The Ritual tells the tale of four friends who spend their best friends’ trip hiking an exhausting-but-beautiful trail in Sweden, making their way to a lodge that awaits their arrival. While they all had other ideas of how to spend their trip, they take the journey in honor of their fifth friend Robert (Paul Reid), who was murdered during a liquor store robbery earlier in the year. I’ll leave out the details of the murder itself (the scene is like an uppercut), but the way it plays out leaves the four shaken still, especially Luke (Rafe Spall). He saw the whole thing, in a sense. As one of the group gets injured during the hike, the leader (Hutch, played by Robert James-Collier) finds that if they cut across a large patch of forest, they can cut the trip to the lodge in half. Now…where have we seen this before?

This entry into “bastard forest” subgenre, as I like to call it, isn’t anything new in the world of horror. The path of The Ritual is recognizable, and it’s already being compared to a lot of films, including The Blair Witch Project. Maybe it’s just me, but at this point in my life it’s just pointless to try to seek out and find ways to compare movies within the same genre, matching them all up and making them all fight out like a freaking Battle Royale. I know some people love to do that, but I’m not a fan. What I can say, though, is that while The Ritual isn’t the absolute best of the bastard forest films, it’s sanguine. The Ritual walks around with its own strut. Its own swagger; like an arrival.

The practice of screenplay adaptations is ever-so-fascinating. The heart of the story remains the same between the book and the script, but the kickoff is very much not. In the book, Robert doesn’t exist, and the friends decide on the hike because it was fiscally sound (Luke is still living like an irresponsible bum in his twenties, while the others grew up and are well off). I think this change, concocted and executed by screenwriter Joe Barton (from various BBC TV projects to the big screen), suits the cinematic adaptation very well. Again, it’s not really new, but it gives the actors and the filmmakers more fat to chew on than just a foursome conflict where the protagonist is an angry jerk. There are various changes from that point on (including the book’s ending that I honestly don’t feel could work on any format), but just that adjustment alone makes me grateful that this ended up in the hands it did. It’s not as gnarly as the book, and that’s a positive thing.

With a film like this, or with any film dealing with heavy atmosphere, there’s a key ingredient that makes it all tie together in any genre or subgenre: trust. A trust, a bond, between the director(s) and everyone else. Yeah sure you can argue that it’s the key ingredient in any film, but think about it. Sometimes movies can rise above other weaker areas (like I talked about last week with the cast of The Cloverfield Paradox rising above everything else). There are parts of The Ritual that aren’t top shelf, and the script itself is just fine. But all of that isn’t quite as crucial as the elements that need to work to pull the right strings, given the film’s inner workings. What makes The Ritual special is that this is a major first step for both lead actor Spall and director David Bruckner. Spall has been around for the better part of fifteen years (I first remember him from being the chubby jerk that worked with Shaun in Shaun of the Dead…yeah that’s right, the guy on his phone!). He’s had supporting roles in various films including The Life of Pi and Prometheus, and he’s done them well. Bruckner’s directing credits include The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound (all underrated gems), and yet he didn’t direct any of them entirely – just chunks of each one. This is the first time that Spall has headlined a film of this magnitude, and it’s the first time Bruckner directs solo. Their first time at the big show, so to speak. And they pull it off beautifully.

The relationship between the lead actor and the director always has the potential to be something spectacular, whether it’s good or bad. Spall and Bruckner put their trust in each other, and as the film progresses, you see that trust evolve into a powerful force. They work magic together. Spall is stunningly brilliant and beautiful as a man who carries the biggest regret of his life on his shoulders, and even when everything goes to hell, he still doesn’t know how to calculate it. He’s put into a position that nobody really knows what they would do until it actually happens, and a lot of people who watch this will think badly of him. But his performance subtly announces to the viewer, “Don’t you think I know this? Don’t you think I know the possible consequences of my actions and choices?” He hides it, even denies it, but his choice catches up with him, and as such in life, the events of the film ask him the same question that life asks all of us: ok, you’re here, so what are you going to do about it?

Bruckner’s execution, his direction with the supporting parties, all revolve around Spall’s performance, and provides him with imagery and bravado of a man hungry to make it on his own. Bruckner’s solo debut is everything I knew it would eventually be. I actually had a chance to meet the man at SXSW in 2007 when he was touring The Signal around. He was nice, and especially passionate about cinema. It took a decade to get here, but his first single outing made the wait worth it. Using Spall’s performance and a neatly packaged adaptation, he rings the bell of Pure Atmospheric Horror (imagine if that was really its name), and serves the viewers something we really haven’t seen done well in a long time. And, without getting into spoiler territory because this has to be seen to believed, the film also includes one of the coolest entities I’ve seen in a long time. It wasn’t enough that it’s the most original thing here, but it also has a bold and refreshing design that’s incredibly creepy. Keith Thompson, whose works can be seen in Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, does a remarkable job, and when the right time arrives, it proves to be an absolute show stopper.

The Ritual comes at the perfect time, and it serves as a reminder of what a moody time in the woods can feel like if you dare venture. We needed this! Last year was a huge win for horror, and 2018 is starting off in a tremendous fashion. So to Mr. Spall and Mr. Bruckner, welcome to the big time; you two will do very well here.