Ritual review NetflixYear: 2018
Director(s): David Bruckner
Writer(s): Joe Barton, Adam Nevill
Region of Origin: UK

Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
Rating: n/a
Digital, Color, 94 mins

Synopsis: A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them. (Source)

Pain and suffering are part of living at one point or another, but these traits are also a double edged sword, capable of making us stronger. In essence, survival is a choice. The Ritual is about choosing to follow the innate survival instinct buried deep within in us, the one that forces us to push through no matter how difficult or devastating something may be. In David Bruckner’s latest film, this search for purpose happens to be wrapped within a killer survival horror thriller, one that blends supernatural frights with keen feelings of guilt, rage and frustration. With its finger on such an exposed nerve, Bruckner’s film sharpens the genre to its most piercing, taking a minimalist approach to yield maximum terror.

The story starts in earnest when four aging friends, Luke (Rafe Spall), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Dom (Sam Troughton), reunite to pay tribute to their friend Rob (Paul Reid), who died brutally during a senseless convenience store robbery. Facing a descent into middle age, Rob’s wish was for the group to go on an epic hiking trip. Now, his surviving friends have made good on his request, finding themselves in the middle of path in Sweden called the King’s Trail. After erecting a makeshift monument for their friend, the group begin their journey back into town. But after an injury slows one of them down, they’re tasked with finding a shorter route out of the woods. Naturally, the most promising path leads into a dense forest housing an ancient evil.

Without mincing words, Bruckner creates a solid synergy between loss, grief and otherworldy menace. Throughout each scare, Bruckner examines the psychological and emotional toil on his characters, making this a damningly real descent into madness. Rather than devolving into a series of meaningless jump scares, the film’s mounting supernatural threats pinpoint deep trauma, prodding Luke and co to confront not just what’s in the woods, but the parts of themselves that they’re ashamed of. As if that weren’t enough, the story’s threats weave a dense mythology around the men’s labyrinthian surroundings, keeping us disoriented with atmosphere akin to occult faves like The Witch, or even, the original Blair Witch. Without saying too much, there is a creature involved, and after a slow yet merciless build, the film goes all out in its third act, allowing each character’s agony to manifest in ways that are too great for genre fans to pass up.

Ritual review Rafe SpallWith such an intimate focus, it’s all eyes on Bruckner’s small, yet stellar ensemble. Rafe Spall’s Luke is the film’s thematic and emotional anchor, a helpless witness to Rob’s death, and an embodiment of everything the film is about. Spall carries his guilt and frustration with real conviction, helping to draw us into the film’s stakes while grounding everything in a very immersive way. If the film hits as hard as it does, it’s because of him. Robert James-Collier’s Hutch adds a counterpoint to Spall’s Luke, a confidant who is a respite to the anger and pain he’s feeling, while also carrying his own burdens. James-Collier has a commanding presence, but never overshadows. Arsher Ali’s Phil and Sam Troughton’s Dom round out the group, connecting a vortex of unsaid fears and selling the group chemistry with natural aplomb.

In the hands of another director, The Ritual could’ve easily fallen prey to a checklist of uninspired jolts and stereotypes. Instead, Bruckner’s adapted Adam Nevill’s novel with undeniable pathos and style. It’s an impressive feature that haunts in a way that really matters, lifting up a genre that settles too often for base level thrills. We may be out of the woods once the credits roll, but the film’s unsettling exploration of human frailty sticks with us much longer.