The opening half-hour of The Ritual certainly offers no hint as to where it all will go, but once one reaches the end of the final half-hour and lets its events stew for a few minutes, there is a definite sense that the direction it ultimately takes is inevitable. This is about as bleak as horror exercises can get, featuring an already tiny cast that only gets smaller and a lot of brouhaha involving witchcraft and a menacing figure in the woods (where, of course, there is also a cabin). Joe Barton's screenplay, adapted from the novel by Adam Nevill, starts as a story about something else entirely, though: the event that has brought this group of four men to these woods.
The four were once five, until Rob (Paul Reid) was killed in a random encounter with some men who were robbing a liquor store of its booze and money. Luke (Rafe Spall) has since been wracked with guilt over the whole thing (and, later, haunted by visions of the attack). He was present, after all, and his first instinct was to hide out of sight of the intruders, not even bothering to pull his friend into that spot of safety with him. Sometime later, Luke, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Phil (Arsher Ali) have decided to pay their respects to their fallen friend by going on the hiking trip intended for all five of them. It'll be through a stretch of mountains in Sweden.
Things, of course, don't go as planned. Dom trips heavily on a rock and injures his knee to such a degree that a shortcut is considered. The only path that will get them to the lodge that is their destination is through a wooded area that seems to be only a few miles long. We know these woods are obviously dangerous because we have seen movies like this before, and director David Bruckner lingers ominously on them for a few seconds longer than if this were any random forest. It is at precisely this point, in fact, that the nuance in character-building shifts wildly to the act of putting them through the cartoonish motions of a horror exercise.
That exercise is only intermittently effective, such as when the troupe stumbles upon the carcass of a bear, spread-eagled and impaled on the branches of a couple of trees, or when that inevitable cabin in the woods holds a totem of the practice of witchcraft. The suggestion is enough to make one wish that Barton and Bruckner wouldn't go any further in showing us the threat in a literal sense. Indeed, when they do just that, it betrays any sense of intrigue that the previous hour had built up, presenting us with (You guessed it) a ritual and a bestial "god" to whom sacrifices must be made. The payoff to the strong start of The Ritual shouldn't feel this routine or commonplace.
Rafe Spall (Luke), Robert James-Collier (Hutch), Sam Troughton (Dom), Arsher Ali (Phil), Paul Reid (Rob).
Directed by David Bruckner and written by Joe Barton, based on the novel by Adam Nevill.
No MPAA rating.
Released on February 9, 2018.