What better way to transcend harrowing guilt and grief, than to be immersed in a world of primal fear? Four friends go on a long hike in the wintry Swedish wilderness. Their journey is a homage to an absent friend, Rob (Paul Reid). Something terrible had happened one night, after an evening out. Luke (Rafe Spall) in particular, seems unable to shake off his sorrow and guilt. Is it survivor’s guilt or something darker?
On a windswept, barren hilltop, Luke and his friends Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Rob James-Collier) and Phil (Arsher Ali) perform a little ritual. They place tealights on a large rock, a memento – a photograph of their friend. A moment intended for solace and peace turns into something else. The ritual feels derailed; resentment seeps out, recriminations suffuse the men’s exchanges, all directed at Luke. His hiking companions are on the cusp of treating him as a scapegoat. Perhaps the harmless little hilltop ceremony has invoked darker spirits.
It becomes apparent that the veiled aggression is less to do with any role Luke might have had to play in Rob’s misfortune, and more because he has a sensibility and playfulness the others lack. Of all those in the group, he, like Rob, seems least in thrall to the type of masculinity which carries an edge of anger, and can tip into a wish to dominate.
The group’s friendship dates back to university. Since then, a distance has grown between them, a distance amplified by loss. As they’ve got older, some of their character traits seem to have hardened. They may also be harbouring their own private demons.
The script, written by Joe Barton, who also wrote the Channel Four Series Humans, gives room to the four actors to develop nuanced characters. As the group comes under increasing strain, those nuances indicate the fault-lines to come.
The performances from Arsher Ali (Line of Duty), Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey), Sam Troughton (Alien vs Predator) are all convincingly strong – fine ensemble playing for a group of characters which is rapidly fragmenting.
The weather turns, the afternoon closes in, and Dom stumbles. His ankle has given way. It is a long way back to warmth and civilisation. The natural leader of the group, Phil, makes a decision, begrudgingly accepted by the others: they will leave the open ground, and take a shortcut through the immense dark forest which stands between them and their refuge. And so starts a long and strangely beautiful descent into hell.
The dark melancholy mood of the story shifts into horror. The forest is endless, confusing. Cinematographer Andrew Shulkind creates the sense of an oppressive arboreal world, of foreboding darkness, with only intermittent glimpses of light. In the depths of the forest, where there is no sunlight, the trees are almost dead, black straggly skeletons. Director David Bruckner maintains the suspense at almost painful levels – every hope of escape from the forest is dashed. Night falls. In a clearing, stands the inevitable cabin in the woods…
At first the horror seems to be all in the mind; the natural world may feel as if it were mocking the group, and the cold sense of terror, soon to engulf all, might only be in the men’s rapidly bolting imaginations. In their sleep, they encounter the one thing which for each of them presents their darkest horror, maybe their undoing.
It could simply be collective hysteria. One particularly brilliant scene, visually striking and emotionally powerful, is announced by the sound of crackling neon lights which burst into a surreal flickering glare. This captures insightfully the experience of recurring trauma.
Then awful sightings occur, with worse yet to come. The horror culminates in a grotesque ritual. There is gore. There are also choices to be made, with the chance, perhaps, of transformation.
The Ritual opens with fear, loss and grief. The title might be about the remembrance ceremony, before the horror starts, and which perhaps unleashed the demons of the forest. Or it could be about the rituals the men are subjected during their ordeal. It could also be something else, less literal: the physical and mental journey undergone by the grief-stricken Luke. Faced with his own sorrow and horror, Luke, a man of sense and boyish sensibility, undergoes a searing rite of passage.
This is a visually stylish film, exciting, enjoyable, and deceptively simple. It is both a straightforward survival horror thriller, and somehow, if one chooses to see that, also something elegantly profound and quite beautiful: an acknowledgement of how traumatic, frightening and lonely guilt and grief can be. Perhaps there was no forest, no cabin in the woods, and no hike in Sweden – just sorrow, confronted and transformed.
Director: David Bruckner
Screenplay: Joe Barton, based on the novel by Adam Neville
Cinematography: Andrew Shulkind
Music: Ben Lovett
Cast: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Asher Ali, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter
First published on Screenwords, October 2017