★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Repeat after me… Shortcuts are never a good idea.
Ah, yes. The Ritual. Director David Bruckner (V/H/S, The Signal) brings us this deeply allegorical tale of friendships. Friendships tested by severe tragedy. The pain of recent events taking its toll on relationships founded years ago and thought to be unshakable. It’s about dealing with the guilt and anguish. It’s about cutting away the past to live in the now. It’s about…
Oh, who are we kidding? It’s about a giant freakin’ forest monster! That’s what it’s about!
Luke, Robert, Hutch, Dom, and Phil are best mates. Have been for a long, long time. They’ve gathered at the local pub to brainstorm ideas for a boys’ weekend. Ibiza? Nah, they’re too old for Ibiza. “Hiking?” Robert (Paul Reid) proposes. Sounds like a lot of work, but they’ll think about it. The group disbands with plans to continue the discussion later.
Robert and Luke (Rafe Spall; Hot Fuzz, Life of Pi) head to a nearby convenience store for more booze, discussing the vacation as they go. Apparently, Robert knows of a hiking trail near the Sweden/Norway border called the King’s Trail. Supposedly, it’s “like the Appalachian Trail, but with more history and less hillbillies.” As the two friends select their beverages of choice, they notice a woman cowering in a corner. That’s when they realize the store is being robbed. Luke scurries behind a rack of liquor and accidentally clinks a few bottles together drawing the attention of the drug-addled miscreants who are attempting to burgle the place.
Unfortunately for Robert who’s stuck in the middle of the aisle, the noise draws the attention of said miscreants and they descend on him like a couple of… you know, miscreants. Who are drug-addled. Whatever. They kill him. Robert’s dead. And Luke did nothing to stop it. Oh, the guilt! Oh, the anguish! Oh, it’s six months later…
As a memorial to poor, dead Robert, the remaining friends decide that the King’s Trail hiking excursion sounds perfect. And here’s where the movie starts to shine. The scenery is beautiful. From what I understand, there really is a King’s Trail near the Sweden/Norway border, but it’s cheaper to film things in Romania so there ya go. Romania sure is pretty, though! As the lads trek through “Sweden”, Dom (Sam Troughton; Alien vs. Predator) twists his ankle and forces the group to rethink their plans. Hutch (Robert James-Collier; Downton Abbey) proposes a shortcut through the dense, ominous, spooky old forest and, for reasons as old as horror movies, everyone else eventually agrees.
The forest, of course, belongs to something big, ancient, and Norse. Preliminary findings of odd runes carved into trees and large animals impaled and disemboweled high up in the thick cover of branches don’t do much for our hapless hikers’ states of mind. One sleepless, nightmare filled evening in an abandoned cabin later and our group of friends is ready to throw in the towel. Unfortunately, once you commit to a shortcut in one of these movies, it’s a done deal and you pretty much just have to hope you can make it out alive.
Is it the best movie ever? Well, no. I didn’t find the characters particularly well differentiated, for one. I had to go out of my way to learn their names, in fact, so it suffered a little bit from Alien 3 disease. As in, who’s that guy again? I blame that entirely on the script, however. The actors did a great job carrying the tension and bewilderment through the trees. I just didn’t exactly know who was who in the beginning.
Ben Lovett’s score fit the narrative so well it drew me in to the point where I lost track of the running time. I kept expecting the Big Reveal to happen: showing off the monster, dispatching what’s left of the cast, and rolling the credits, but the story just kept going! What’s with the torch-lined path? Who are those people? What’s going on? The immersion and those little surprises were the second best thing about this film.
What was the best thing about the movie? The monster. Hands down. More often than not, a monster movie hides its big bad in the shadows. A rustle in the trees here. A shape moving just outside the window there. The expectation builds and builds to the Big Reveal and then…. you’re usually left with a mass of sharp teeth, claws, and disappointment. Or a vampire. A sparkly vampire. In any case, after you’ve seen a number of creature features, the monsters all kinda blend together.
One way around this critter ennui is to watch foreign monster movies. Other cultures will often have weird and interesting ideas about what makes a monster scary. South Korea’s The Host (2006) comes immediately to mind. Or, perhaps, Norway’s Tollhunter (2010). The other way to combat the dreaded “fiend fatigue” is to hunt down those few very special movies who truly love their monsters. And The Ritual is definitely one of those.
Hats off to Keith Thompson (Pacific Rim, The Strain)! He’s credited as the “creature designer” for The Ritual and this movie has one of the best beasties I’ve seen in decades. And that’s saying something given the number of sad, quickly forgotten monsters I’ve seen. The intimidating centerpiece of The Ritual does not disappoint. It’s big. It’s different. And it’s beautifully crafted. It fits perfectly into the tale as some kind of long-forgotten, mythological, Scandinavian godling of nature. As a lover of monster movies, the brief glimpses you get as things progress build up to a thoroughly satisfying reveal and, when you see the full creature standing silhouetted against a massive conflagration (while conveniently holding an unfortunate victim for scale), it’s glorious.
Sure, whether or not the ending is satisfying can be debated, but one thing’s for sure: this monster is somebody’s pride and joy and they breathed life into it like few others can.