David Bruckner’s The Ritual is a harrowing blend of fierce and folksy horror, but also comes with a tingle of FOMO. How, you ask? Track back to 2007, when Bruckner teamed with Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry to dial-in their shared narrative The Signal (three directors, three “transmissions”). Between then and The Ritual we’ve seen two Bruckner visions in the form of (fan favorite) anthology segments – “Amateur Night” (V/H/S) and “The Accident” (Southbound) – yet no solo project. Quite simply, The Ritual is too tight and polished for a “feature-length debut,” but that’s what it *technically* is. Genre fans, we’ve been robbed of boatloads more Bruckner these past years (case and point: where the HELL is Brucker’s Friday The 13th).
Throughout writer Joe Barton’s adaptation of Adam Nevill’s novel, we follow four friends who take a hiking “mancation” through Northern Sweden. Suggestions like Ibiza, Tuscany and Amsterdam were once on the table, but the unexpected death of fifth mate Robert (Paul Reid) makes their decision more of a memorial tour. “Rob” loved the idea of a nature expedition, so Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier) and Dom (Sam Troughton) hit the trails for those who cannot. Then they get lost in a dense thicket of woods, encounter a legendary deity and find themselves scurrying frantically across cursed lands – not exactly the getaway these college friends expected.
Based on situation alone, Bruckner isn’t mapping uncharted territory. Amateur explorers forgo open, more easily navigated hills and venture into off-the-beaten-path forestation because an injured party member pushes for shortcut gambling (and, I mean, there’s beer at the lodge). Isolation and confusion warp minds (in addition to gutteral snarls from afar). The Ritual leads us down a familiar pathway of dead trees and eerie silence, but there’s light at the end of this blackened trail.
Sorry, did I say “light?” I meant mayhem, Norse nightmares and face-to-face encounters with an antlered beast. So many of today’s horror films fail to deliver on lofty promises, but Bruckner ensures Netflix’s latest original release does not find itself on any such hit list.
While something wicked our journeymen’s way comes, Sweden’s mountainous backwoods are framed with enough sensational malice themselves. As Bruckner pans over the sprawling sea of treetops, hope gives way to desolation. Sound editing splices the crackle of ripping bark with beastly grumbles when our characters feel at their most alone. For as beautiful an untouched field is when warmed with sunlight, cinematography makes use of perspective to pit man against elements outside of their control. Massive trunks line brush-free paths to nowhere, cycling the same lush greens that dash hopes of escape and hide stalking nastiness.
Make no mistake – The Ritual is a primal hunt. Fearful humans versus Loki’s bastard offspring. The boys, stricken by grief as they point blame over Rob’s death, spend equal time fleeing and fighting depending on when tensions boil over. This is because Luke could be to blame for Rob’s untimely demise given he was the one who wanted vodka, and he’s the one who urged Rob to accompany him into the liquor mart, and he’s the one who cowered behind shelves while Rob took a criminal’s machete to the face. Luke is blamed – by others and himself – which makes this story as much about responsibility and despair as it does an outdoorsy survival thriller. Luke’s redemption is at the forefront of the conflict.
Chemistry is key as old friends look at each other with tragic eyes, mostly fixated on Rafe Spall. It’s not hatred, but a sense of remorse causes Sam Troughton’s least-acclimated “adventurer” to lash out at Spall’s designated man-child. Such advances are taken in stride; Spall able to dole punches, comeuppances and general hints of personal evolution. Luke is a layman’s charmer who smokes or swigs, yet a troubled specimen worth Bruckner’s lead. As the fires of chaos rage, Spall finds himself lost in the struggle at hand – a deer caught in headlights who’s further shaped by resilience.
At its best, The Ritual strikes with piecing imagery like strung-up deer carcasses or an abstract behemoth who’s trickery equals its bite. As Luke darts his flashlight around the surrounding nothingness – on-edge as twigs crunch under something’s foot – tension is like a knife to your throat. Disemboweled mammals send a shiver while carved witchcraft signs and flammable effigies unsettle. This is where Robert James-Collier’s confident alpha act and Arsher Ali’s grip-and-rip paranoia make themselves most useful, given their lesser arcs throughout Luke’s personal gauntlet.
Bruckner’s mythical foe doesn’t merely want to slaughter, though. Luke finds himself continually “transported” to mossy reenactments of Rob’s last night – forest clearings transformed to vegetative convenience store aisles – because this demon’s torment transcends mental and physical realms. Illusions drive each traveler mad before any pouncing or savagery occurs, as Bruckner blends frenzied animal instincts with mumbled occultism that God himself casts a blind eye to. Blasphemy enacted, executioner present.
Some my take issue with Luke’s trajectory versus the fate of his accomplices – it’s a thought in my own mind – but this is a horror story. Karma is an unjust bitch and Gaia unforgiving. In that regard, The Ritual summons primitive fear with a ranger’s hawk-like eye. Shades of Blair Witch make the unknown an enemy while David Bruckner pulls all the right strings worth a gradual – and tempered – ramping of intensity. You will hear, see and bow before a mighty evil all in due time, which all climaxes during one of 2018’s wildest cinematic third acts. Like, almost Kill List level. A thunderous, roaring conquest.
The Ritual may start on familiar footing, but trust in David Bruckner's ability to summon some nasty tension and a third act that horror fans will be talking about all year.