The Ritual, Netflix’s latest original film, tells the story of four friends on a hike through the magnificent landscape of a Swedish forest as they reminisce over their friendship and recently murdered comrade. When one of the friends suffers a leg injury, the men take a trip through the heart of the woods to cut down on time. What they hope will be a shortcut, however, soon becomes a nightmare of supernatural and deadly proportions.
It’s evidenced from the trailer alone that the collaboration between writer Joe Barton and director David Bruckner is derivative of similar films, specifically The Blair Witch Project. Fortunately, though those influences are worn openly, The Ritual focuses enough effort into differentiating itself that viewers are left with an experience that is both familiar and unique. Despite the similarities to 1999’s witchy affair, this is the most frightened we’ve been of the woods since that film’s release.
In part, The Ritual gains that difference in aesthetic alone. This isn’t a shaky cam feature such as Project was. David Bruckner and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind utilize their setting to the film’s benefit, crafting a picture that is often as gorgeous as it is intensely horrifying. Even as frightened viewers watch through the gaps between their fingers, the nature of this nightmare will be a constant sight to behold.
The most extreme difference between The Ritual and any film it borrows from, though, is the central story and emotional draw. Each actor performs well, and you not only buy these guys as lifelong friends, but you actually feel for them when the Swedish forest becomes a supernatural hunting ground- specifically the character of Luke, played phenomenally by Rafe Spall. Luke is the main attraction of the story, as his grief and guilt over the death of his friend dominates his life. Spall showcases that guilt and regret throughout the runtime, and Luke is constantly faced with situations in which those feelings must be confronted. Though the film doesn’t quite achieve the emotional catharsis of his character arc in the finale, the journey to that point adds a dramatic heft that sets The Ritual in a league of its own.
Potentially, the greatest flaw of The Ritual will be the divisive final act- but that’s going to depend on the viewer. Personally, I’m still chewing on it. On one hand, it’s these final twenty minutes that takes the film into commendably fresh and unexpected territory, but on the other, at least initially, it breaks the sustained tension of the film to this point. While it eventually finds its footing in the scenario it establishes for itself, crafting a new kind of tension and setting the table for especially haunting shots, the story reveal is surely going to make or break this feature for some.
Despite that singular potential issue, I found The Ritual to be a horrifying cross between The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man with a monstrous twist. It’s tense, emotionally rich, and an early contender for 2018’s greatest horror film. Stream it on Netflix as soon as possible.