Over the course of his 11-year directing career, David Bruckner has contributed to three horror omnibuses—and in each of those cases, it was his entry that shone brightest.
In 2007’s The Signal, about a strange transmission that drives humanity mad, Bruckner generated intense anxiety during an opening salvo involving a woman fleeing a corpse-filled apartment building; in 2012’s V/H/S, his “Amateur Night” provided a chilling up-close-and-personal warning about the hazards of cruising for sex; and in 2015’s Southbound, his “The Accident” cast a caustic eye on one man’s best efforts to care for a woman he unintentionally hit with his car. Defining characters in quick, sharp lines, and generating suspense from both dialogue interplay and cagey set pieces that culminate in nightmarish fashion, the filmmaker has long seemed primed for the feature arena, and a bigger canvas that might allow him to further expand his already impressive talents.
With The Ritual, he gets just that.
Premiering exclusively on Netflix this Friday, Bruckner’s first full-length effort is a superior supernatural flick, even if it doesn’t stray far from well-worn terrain with regards to both its maker’s past output and the genre he clearly (and dearly) loves. Another in a long line of cautionary tales about the perils of well-to-do city dwellers confidently venturing out into the dark, mysterious unknown, where unruly and unholy things rule, it concerns a group of friends who depart to the wilds of Sweden, where trouble invariably finds—and then does not very nice things to—them. For those weaned on backwoods survival horror, The Ritual will feel like a trip to comfortably uncomfortable environs. And yet Bruckner’s film has more meat on its bones than most, its mayhem splattered with not only blood but issues of guilt, regret and redemption. At its finest, it’s a horrorshow doubling as an incisive examination of stunted-adolescent masculinity.
At an English pub, Luke (Rafe Spall) shoots down possible vacation ideas from friends Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Rob (Paul Reid), all of which strike him as far too staid and middle-aged-ish. He reluctantly gives in when Rob proposes that they hike the “King’s Trail” along the Swedish-Norway border, and then—after his friends decide to pack it in rather than continue the evening’s revelry—he convinces Rob to accompany him to the liquor store to buy a bottle. There, Luke continues to lament his mates’ newfound fuddy-duddy lameness (e.g. they had the gall to suggest “brunch!”), but his whiny rebellion against growing up is cut short when he and Rob notice that the girl behind the counter is seriously injured. A second later, two men emerge from the back room wielding machetes. Luke ducks behind a shelf, leaving Rob to face the assailants alone. When they ask for his wedding wing, Rob turns to the hidden Luke, who with a shake of his head advises his friend to continue refusing. For his non-compliance, Rob is cut down dead.
After that tragic prologue, The Ritual jumps forward in time to pick up with Luke, Hutch, Dom and Phil trekking through Sweden’s mountains, all in order to reach a hilltop where they erect a shrine to pay tribute to the fallen Rob—an act that does little to wipe away the anguished self-reproach smeared across Luke’s face. Once that business is completed, the quartet begin making their way back to their lodge, only to be delayed when Dom twists his ankle. Faced with 14 more hours of on-foot travel, Hutch recommends they take a “shortcut” through the nearby woods, promising that their compass will keep them pointed in the right direction. Reluctantly, they agree, and before long they discover a gutted elk carcass hanging, decoratively, in the trees. When a subsequent thunderstorm erupts, they take shelter in a rickety, abandoned old shed decorated with (and surrounded by trees boasting) strange pagan symbols—as well as an even more inexplicable surprise waiting for them upstairs.
If this sounds like The Blair Witch Project territory, well, that’s because it is, although Bruckner’s aesthetics are anything but shaky-cam gimmicky. Shrewdly using shadows to menacing (and tantalizing) effect, and inserting ominous master shots of the imposing landscape—all misty clouds hovering over vast chasms and towering peaks—into the action proper, the director conveys an impression of the wilderness as an enormous, untamed beast, patiently waiting to consume those foolish enough to enter. That notion is further augmented by later scenes set amidst crowded clusters of trees, their protruding spiky branches interlocking so neatly that they resemble teeth eager to gnaw on ripe flesh. Mother Nature is ferocious, and she’s hungry.
The Ritual soon descends into madness of an ever-more-delirious sort, rife with unsettling dreams, glimpses of gigantic creatures, and religious ceremonies that are definitely not found in the Old or New Testament. In the lead-up to his finale, Bruckner strikes a delicate balance between providing plentiful nastiness and yet keeping the source of this insanity partially hidden from view, only to finally reveal said fiend in a fire-lit silhouette shot that’s at once gorgeous and bloodcurdling. Moreover, he manages to consistently provide additional information about his characters’ circumstances without ever fully spelling out precisely what the hell is going on—a feat that allows the film to both satisfy one’s curiosity just enough, while also keeping one’s imagination working to fill in the (deliberately designed) blanks.
Best of all is that The Ritual never loses sight of Luke’s tormented feelings of responsibility over Rob’s death (a scene which repeatedly manifests itself within the actual woods), and his struggle to locate the courage to be the adult he’s so doggedly tried not to be. Spall’s beleaguered turn always keeps Luke’s motivations in doubt, and Bruckner never underlines his saga’s larger concerns; instead, he allows them to arise naturally out of the increasingly harried events that befall his protagonist, and force him to become accountable for himself and others. He may not be wholly successful in that endeavor by film’s end, but whether via a self-broken thumb or a final showdown with an unspeakable evil, Luke’s proves to be a memorably menacing story about the painful cost of immature cowardice and also, ultimately, of manning up.