Joel Edgerton recently got testy while doing press for Red Sparrow, accusing critics who didn’t like Bright of being upset that Netflix had “changed the landscape for movies.”
Relax, Joel. Netflix is a disruptor, no doubt about it, but at the moment, they’re pretty much exactly like any other distributor. They’ve made some good films. They’ve made some bad films. They’ve picked up some good films. They’ve picked up some bad films. They have very deep pockets right now, so they seem willing to try almost anything, and casting that wide a net means you’re going to see some wildly mixed results. I’m okay with that. And so far, the best luck Netflix has had in the original films arena has been with horror, and that is certainly true with THE RITUAL, a good-ol’-fashioned monster movie that stands shoulder to shoulder with any monster movie I’ve seen theatrically in recent memory.
David Bruckner has spent the decade since the release of The Signal building a solid filmography and gradually fine-tuning his craft. I like his work in the anthology films V/H/S and Southbound, and it feels like he grabbed hold of The Ritual with a ferocious hunger, like he was determined to put everything he’s learned so far as a filmmaker to work with one goal: freaking out his audience. The film opens with a group of friends planning a vacation together, and that one scene does a nice job of establishing the energy between them. The night ends in tragedy, though, so when we jump forward in time, there’s one member of the group who is no longer with them.
That loss is deeply felt by all of them in different ways, but Luke (Rafe Spall) is the one who was rocked the hardest. After all, he was right there next to Robert (Paul Reid) when it happened, and his survivor’s guilt is only exasperated by the way his other friends now look at him. If the entire film was about the way that group dynamic broke down over the course of a holiday trip, it would work perfectly well as a drama. Dom (Sam Troughton), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Hutch (Robert James-Collier) all have very different reactions to the loss of Robert, and for a while, the film simmers on the resentments that are just starting to surface among them. Dom hurts himself, though, and Hutch decides to lead them off-trail so they can get back to the lodge and out of the wilderness.
That’s a very, very bad idea, as anyone who has ever seen a horror film must know. Yes, it can be frustrating when characters start to act in ways that seem driven more by plot than by human behavior, but The Ritual suggests there is a reason that these people are behaving this way. There are escalating incidents, but the short version is that there may in fact by an ancient God wandering the woods, demanding its own kind of sacrifice, its own particular tribute in the form of fear and awe. It seems to be weaving a kind of spell over these guys from the moment they first cross into its territory, and the film almost plays like a dark fairy tale. Much of The Ritual is about mood and creeping dread, and Bruckner does that very well. There’s a cabin where the guys spend an ill-advised night that I found genuinely upsetting, especially regarding Phil and what happens to him. Ali plays the rest of the movie haunted by his inexplicable actions, as would anyone, and it’s that kind of human note that makes me love a horror movie. Rafe Spall is an actor who I generally like, and he is given room to really shine here as he struggles to figure out how he’s supposed to survive this nightmare.
When making a film like this, obviously a big question is how you’re going to realize the monster and make it special. Keith Thompson deserves kudos for a design that does not feel like any other specific creature, but that feels like it could well exist in a supernatural world. There is something organic and beautiful about it. Miyazaki would probably love this monster. Andy Serkis’ company The Imaginarium is a producing partner on the film, and they worked with Nvisible on the visual effects. Sometimes, when effects companies are involved in the production and creative end of films, you get empty showcases, but this feels like they found a script built around a creature and then really leaned into helping the filmmaker bring something new and beautiful to the screen.
The Ritual won’t surprise fans of the genre by breaking some rich new narrative ground, but it may surprise them in terms of how controlled and rewarding it is by the end. Much like The Descent made such great use of the basic claustrophobia of cave exploration, Bruckner makes very good use of the yowling existential horror of being lost in the deep woods, something that we carry within us like ancestral memory. And, yes, I can point at many precursors to this film, like The Blair Witch Project or The Wicker Man, but it’s the way Bruckner and his collaborators have thrown all of these influences into this fairly rich and disturbing mix that makes this one a highlight of the Netflix Originals catalog so far.
Running time: 94 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic