Movie Review - The Ritual (2018)

Posted 2/22/2018

Rating: 4/5

The Ritual, a tense, tightly written horror film released a few weeks ago on Netflix, is a beautifully done film, that asks the right questions in a way that keeps the viewer in suspense, and provokes genuine sympathy for its characters. Like perhaps too many horror films, however, I don’t believe that, in the end, it answers fully the central question it asks. It opens with a group of college friends in an English pub, arguing over where to go on vacation. They are opinionated, selfish; the seed of dissension is right beneath their skin. On the way home, Luke (Rafe Spall), the the central character of the story, stops by a liquor store with Rob, another member of the friends, only to discover while they are purchasing vodka that the store is being held up. In the mugging that follows, Rob is repeatedly bashed in the head with a tire iron until he dies, while Luke huddles, afraid, behind a shelf of champagne. For one moment, before the last blow strikes, Rob makes a great effort to look up at the hidden Luke, perhaps accusingly, perhaps imploringly. Ever afterwards, Luke is besieged by guilt, by the fear that if he had acted, confronted the criminals, Rob would never have died.

The friends, motivated by the innate human need for ritual, go to Sweden to hike, because that was what Rob wanted to do. On top of a mountain—in a beautifully shot sequence highlighting the forests and fog of Sweden, the alternating brown of the hilly fields, and green of the wooded mountains—they erect an altar of stone, place on it a picture of Rob, say a few, realistically trite, agnostic words, and pour out a libation of vodka in his honor. Someone says the phrase, “it didn’t have to happen.” Luke takes it personally, and his mind is filled by doubt and guilt; he desperately wants Rob’s death not to be his fault, but the guilt and insecurity keep him thinking of almost nothing else. He is quiet, reclusive. This sets up the key drama of the film. Luke must somehow deal with his guilt, and the effect that it has on those around him. The rest of the film—the frantic scurrying through the forested mountains, the monster, symbolizing Luke’s guilt picking off the friends one by one and impaling them on the trees, to the climactic end in which Luke burns down the temple of a group of deranged swedes who worship the forest monster, only to barely escape the monster himself—is well written, keeps the viewer on his toes, and has a lack of gratuitous jump scares to make any thoughtful viewer at least a little appreciative.

But in the final quarter of the film—when Dom, Luke’s last remaining friend, is about to be sacrificed, and following—this is where the film seems to leave one of its initial dramatic questions unanswered. Or, at least, not answered in a compelling way. The film is filled with religious imagery, and imagery suggesting man’s need for religion. The friends offer a vague ritual in memorial of Rob on top of a mountain. The parishioners of the fiend are created when travelers are presented with a choice: they must either bow and worship the guilt-fiend—and he is a guilt-fiend, as we are constantly reminded by Luke’s hallucinations of the liquor store whenever the fiend appears—or they will be impaled by the fiend on the trees of his forest. They must bow and worship a demon, or else be hung from a tree. Luke is saved, because at the end, after all his friends are dead, he finally bows and worships, and only then is he allowed to escape the forest. What does this mean? Luke faces his guilt, admits to it in worshipping the fiend. Only in finally admitting to it he is saved. Before he admitted to it, his friends were torn apart, at first figuratively, through arguments—especially a fight between Luke and Dom when Dom accuses him of being a coward, of being responsible for Rob’s death—but after they are all dead, Luke finally admits and confronts his guilt, and is saved. So far, perhaps so good. But this ignores something profound about the nature of guilt. It’s not just through admitting to guilt that one is delivered from it; that’s just the beginning.

In the final scene, Luke confronts the monster admits the hallucinated wreckage of the liquor store. We see Rob, dying once again in front of Luke, as he lays on the ground, his head pinned to the dirt by the fiend’s paw. Rob dies, just as before. Luke snatches an axe, strikes the fiend once in the neck, and runs to safety, away from the hallucination that still accuses him. It’s for this reason that as a viewer I feel that the central problem of the film remains unanswered. Luke must return to Dom’s wife, and tell him that he died. Luke must, presumably, still live with the guilt of Rob’s death; he has never done anything in the film to substantively engage with his actions at the liquor store. He is bettered by the experience to be sure; the film is not without merit. He breaks a wrist fruitlessly attempting to save Dom at the end, and we feel proud of him. We see the growth of Luke’s character. We see that at the heart of the answer to guilt is religious fear, and sacrifice. And, perhaps most notably in the horror genre, the characters are all meaningful individuals, who we care about, and suffer a little along with them. It’s a beautifully shot film. It was, at the end, a pleasure to watch. Perhaps I should be happy to find a horror film with which I have only one real qualm. I am happy, in fact. But my remaining qualm is one central to the dramatic question posed by the film. When Luke worships the fiend of his own guilt, runs away from his hallucination, and ends only by standing at the edge of the forest, bathed in the morning sunlight and the fog, screaming with animal ferocity back at the darkness, at the valley of the shadow of death where he was taken to be tested, I feel that his battle with guilt is missing a key weapon, repentance.