ritual

Horror fan shouldn’t sleep on this one.

Some people are rather wrong-headedly referring to Netflix’s The Ritual as a Blair Witch also-ran or “The Descent with boys”. There’s some aesthetic overlap with the former and some set-up overlap with the latter, but The Ritual‘s story and themes have very little to do with either of those films. Or any other horror film I’ve seen for that matter. Doesn’t mean this is an instant classic, but it’s a pretty confident and robust movie with a ton on its mind –things that may not be immediately apparent if you don’t try and dig in a little and see what it’s saying about masculinity, fear, courage, and what we’re willing to give up to be safe and secure. Directed by David Bruckner and based on the novel by Adam Nevill, I’ll leave it to those who’ve read it to tell me whether it’s pretty close or does its own thing. I do plan to read it now, based on the strength of the movie alone. I saw this before I saw Annihilation (review soon I think) but that movie had the same effect. I immediately went and bought the book(s) and those ones are pretty different.

Anyways, a solid and unusual exploration of an interesting theme isn’t the only thing that makes The Ritual worth checking out. For horror fans, there’s a ton of spooky imagery and a creeping sense of dread that pulses through the movie. On top of that, it seems like the type of horror movie where they hold the monster back because they’re not confident about the effects or what its overall “scare” factor will be. But it turns out that it’s the opposite. This movie is fully confident about its monster and though it waits to show it off, when it does it’s full speed ahead and I’ve got to say that it’s one of the creepiest and most interesting monsters I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. The only thing that’ll top it in 2018, I’d wager, is the creepy fucking bear in Annihilation. That guy is one of the all-time scariest movie creatures though so the bar ain’t low.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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These lads are about to be in spooky country.

After the death of their friend Robert (Paul Reid), a group of friends struggle to make a hiking trip to rural Sweden meaningful as a send-off to him. He was “the best” of them and his death was ugly and unnecessary enough to haunt all of them to one degree or another. The most haunted is Luke (Rafe Spall), who was there to witness it. He found himself unable to intervene, frozen in fear of two robbers who didn’t have to kill Robert, but did, in an act of senseless violence. We return to this scene again and again throughout the movie, in interestingly-staged sequences that merge the wilderness with the scalding, judgmental fluorescent lighting of the liquor store where it all went down.

The others, Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier) and Dom (Sam Troughton), all represent various tropes of masculinity both in their responses to the tragedy and in how they deal with the hike and the ensuing horror they all find themselves facing. Phil is the quiet friend that hangs back and supports the bigger egos around him. Dom is the whiny, proper one who is high maintenance and “sensible”. Hutch is the adventurer, but all he really wants is to keep his broken social circle together when Robert isn’t around to do it anymore. All of them don’t know what to do with Luke, who was once more boisterous and now quietly smokes, leaning against trees and trying not to meet the potentially damning eyes of his “friends”. The dynamics are complex and subtle, rooted more in performance and the way things are said than in explicit dialogue. The stuff these guys say to each other often hides more that they can’t. It’s that kind of movie.

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That’s no big deal. See that sort of thing all the time.

A combination of Dom’s need for attention and Hutch’s need to be a swinging dick lead the group into a dark and foreboding forest, trying to make it through to a lodge that always seems to be over the next ridge. It’s a classic horror set-up, a bunch of people taking a risk on a “short cut” only to come to a sinister end. The Ritual isn’t really trying to reinvent the wheel here, and you’ve seen this kind of set-up many times before. The movie expects this, though, and tries to surprise and delight in the smaller details and specificity of its themes and characters. The real turning point is when they stay in a creepy cabin for the night, waking up in states of disorientation and with varying degrees of fear and damage brought on by some kind of shared nightmare. A good example of the way this movie works is in how it uses this not as a way to spook the audience with vague allusions to “scary stuff”, but in how it grounds the reactions and state of the characters in the morning with stuff that is both specific to the characters and ties into the themes the movie is exploring. Hutch, for instance, pisses himself. Dom cries out desperately for his wife. These are reactions that seem to undermine each character’s sense of their own manliness.

Luke wakes up apart from the others, marked by something in a way that he can’t begin to explain. Though we don’t see the dreams of the others, we do see his and they revolve totally around his guilt about Robert. That night, drunk in the store as two men robbed the place, Luke hid behind a shelving unit and froze… even as he tried to will himself to do something that a tough, manly man would do. He picks up a bottle and turns it around in his hand, like he’s going to use it for a cudgel. But he does nothing. Robert, on the other hand, gets caught in the open and politely goes along with the robbery until they want his wedding ring. This scene is tense as fuck, giving the viewer Luke’s vantage and daring us to imagine ourselves doing differently than he does. Usually, scenes like this seem to leave a lot of room for tough guy audiences to have the kind of reaction to Luke that some of his friends have. He’s just a pussy who let his buddy die, right?

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WRONG.

It’s just more complicated than that, isn’t it? That’s what the movie is trying to point out. Luke definitely thinks of himself as a coward, and he knows the others see him that way. His survivor’s guilt leads him to relive that experience over and over, trying to imagine himself doing something different. And there’s this thing in those woods, watching them and stalking them. And it knows.

Up to about the halfway point, The Ritual can feel like a pretty familiar, if solid, kind of movie. Even its creeping supernatural dread, hear flavored with creepy Norse runes, definitely recalls other films (like The Blair Witch). But then it starts to let us see the Monster, it starts to kill off the lads, and it starts tearing down the familiar edifice it has constructed. That’s where the movie really shines past its attention to detail in themes and character, and this is also when viewers are either going to get really excited about it or be perversely turned off by the fact that it doesn’t take its earlier conventional approach to a conventional conclusion.

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Um….

The surviving lads, Dom and Luke (of course it’s these two) stumble across a village out of time. The people who live there are sickly and old and they immediately take the two prisoner. We start getting a feeling they’re going to be sacrificed to whatever lives in the woods. But there’s a lot more going on here, some of which is still fairly subtle and may have squeaked by anyone caught up or turned off. In a nutshell:

These villagers trade worship and devotion to the demi-god or whatever it really is (the villagers think it’s a Jotun, kind of like a giant), and it gives them everlasting life in exchange. But the conditions of that life are ghastly. These people are afraid, cowards really, who will live as mummified husks for fear of the alternative. That’s what it’s got to offer Luke, who is a coward (?). This makes this thing a God of Cowards, reflecting the crisis that Luke is facing. A crisis that reflects the secret, anxious voices that many men hear whispering to them whether they’ve ever been in a situation where this was tested or not. That voice asks us, are you a coward?

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The design of the God of Cowards is totally, eerily unique and worth seeing this movie for all on its own.

It’s a voice that follows us around throughout our lives. It comes from social and individual pressures about masculinity, but it also comes from the basic mechanics of fear and how humans can or should respond to it. Men have a special relationship to this, couched in the willingness to face violence, leading us to think we’re not really men unless we can/do employ violence when a situation seemingly calls for it. No one would not wish to save Robert, especially Luke, so the movie suggests that there’s something about the sacrifice of safety. What is worth dying, or at least risking death? It’s a bit of a riddle since the wrappings are still violence, death, and the anxiety of facing either. I think it’s possible for some people to be really sympathetic to Luke freezing up in the store (I was) and still finding something meaningful in the way he chooses to be brave when he has every reason, beyond reason, not to be.

Whatever we might conclude about what Luke did in the store the night Robert died, he proves that he’s not a coward now. He rejects the creature’s implicit offer and destroys its workings as best he can. He has a kind of battle with it, culminated by striking a blow with an old axe (symbolic) and beating it to the edge of the woods, where it can’t follow him anymore. As a final act of defiance, he screams in its face. This ending probably made some people go “what the fuck?” but I thought it was brilliant. Most of us can do little else but scream back at the things that scare us. We’ll never (never say never) be able to corporealize our fears in a scary deer-man-tree thing, but we can certainly tell the scared voices in our heads to shut the fuck up, at the top of our lungs, when we decide that something is worth risking our discomfort or even safety. You can only be brave when you’re afraid, after all.

 

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