The Ritual is a British horror movie, bought off the festival scene by Netflix, and thus emblazoned with a Netflix banner on the page. I loved it, but it also felt like a mosaic of things I (a rather casual horror fan) have seen before.
First off, there is the inciting moment of the movie. Five guy friends meet to discuss their yearly trip. One of the guys insists that they take a hiking trip in Sweden instead of going to the same European party cities again to get wasted. They don’t decide, but as they are disperse, two of them divert into a bodega. Inside, the pair stumbles into a robbery in progress, and hiking trip guy is killed, Flash to six months later, the remainder of the crew is hiking in Sweden in honor of their friend.
Alright, so that might not sound like another movie you have seen, but suffice to say the movie is built around this grief and psychological shame, which is well known in horror movies. It isn’t surprising that there is a monster who feeds off the pain of a small band of worshipers. Monsters are ripe for such metaphor.
I’m getting ahead of myself with this monster talk. Before the monster is ever seen, there is a long build up, where the four hikers keep running into scarier and scarier situations. I’m making this sound mundane, but The Ritual is at its best in this section, especially their first night in the deep woods where they sleep in a creepy cabin. All four have awful nightmares, and the friend who was in the store and watched his friend get murdered ends up marked with five holes on his chest (in case there was any doubt as to which hiker was our protagonist).
Of course, this is all happening in thick Swedish forests, which reminded me of the setting for Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, only making the whole movie more unsettling. (Note: I’m not saying they are the same setting or anything, but some visuals were a tad reminiscent and the color palate was similar.) The Ritual has enticing scenery, but the forest is also endless. I never ended up feeling the exhaustion of the characters (it wasn’t that long of a trip), but I did come to understand their hopelessness through the visuals.
The journey ends at a small village of backwards people who worship the killer creature that lurks in the woods. This was definitely the least original turn the story could take, but the attentive viewer realizes that something specific marks the members of this community. They aren’t natives. They are converts.
Being the Audience
About halfway through the movie, there is a moment where the beleaguered hikers uncover an old tent. They find a shoe (who leaves behind shoes?) and a wallet. Looking through the wallet for clues, they find a credit card that expired in 1984, as well as picture of a family, ostensibly the family who left behind this tent: Father, mother, son, and daughter. The picture is not on the screen too long and the dialogue does not call much attention to it, but the daughter is sitting just a little apart from the rest of the family.
Fast forward to the end of the movie in the village.
One of the villagers is a noticeably younger female about the age one would expect the girl in the picture to be. She is able to give a brief explanation of events to the protagonist (who was in the store when the friend died and subsequently marked by the monster) in broken English. “Your pain is great,” she says.
I was really struck by the things I found implicit in this movie, and this character was what made me realize it. Of course I realized the girl sitting off from her family, and I realized that this said something about their family dynamic. In the same way, I realized hiking was a very different trip from a week in Ibiza, and that this said something about the friend who had proposed the trip.
Those two examples are pretty innocuous, but think about the movie as a whole. The mythology of The Ritual requires a lot more of the viewer than the Babadook even, because the process of grief isn’t the focus of the Ritual but pain more broadly. Will the protagonist give in and worship his pain like people before him have chosen to do?
I found that central tension in The Ritual interesting (even if never as a visceral as Babadook), but The Ritual also struck me as being very indulgent in the pop psychology which is its inspiration. Though drawing on Norse mythology, really the text of the movie is a semi-psychological maxim which says, “One cannot be obsessed with their pain.” There is no differentiation between the wholly external and the somewhat self inflicted. There is no chosen alternative, just a prohibition.
What’s my point? There’s a hollowness at the center of this movie, because there is hole in its moral point of view. There is something superficial there.
For me, this is why say (in the abstract) if there was some vaguely religious psychologist with a self-selected stock of mythology, claiming some sort of moral vision, oh let’s say, masculinity (interestingly, a vision of masculinity emphasizing pursuits like rigorous hikes which might increase virtue). Well, such a figure would not grab my attention.
Ends and goals are better when they are external and go beyond some pragmatic objective, especially self-actualization, which is the silver lining to the body count of The Ritual. Our protagonist (a single male) emerges fully himself, leaving behind a trail of corpses. The last shot is of his face blood and muddy, but with new self-possession. What more could there be than this?