REVIEW: The Logic And Masculinity Of THE RITUAL
I’ve always hated camping. Growing up in rural Texas though, with parents that loved the outdoors, I went camping a lot. Specifically in the Big Bend National Park, the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan desert. I don’t remember any specific memories, but I am lovingly taunted with a story of a 5 year old Jacob standing on a picnic table, hands clutched in front of me, terrified of the possible animals and creatures that lie beyond the treeline. I wasn’t scared of potential monsters though, just deer, with their cold judgemental eyes. But as I grew up, and teenage will forced my parents to abandon all hopes of camping again, I have held on to a fascination with terror in the trees. The surrounding area of my childhood home were flanked by a patch of woods, which so even looking out the back facing window of my house, I could feel the potential endlessness of the trees. As my taste in horror developed, I found myself gravitating towards forest-set horror more and more, relishing in nostalgia through film. But with the exception of a few groundbreaking films, Woodsploitation never veers to far from the typical narrative beats, rehashing the broken ground that The Blair Witch Project made. That’s why David Bruckner’s film film, The Ritual, is so exciting.
The Ritual starts far from the trees, in a small pub, where five friends Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Asher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Robert (Paul Reid) are discussing a trip the group annually takes. Before heading home, Luke persuades Robert to accompany him into a liquor store to pick up another bottle to continue the night, where tragedy strikes, leaving Robert dead. In his honor, the group reunite six months later to go hiking in Sweden, Roberts initial suggestion for where they should go. A somber climate is cast over the friends, as tensions rise between the group and Luke, who watched Robert be murdered. It’s one hell of a set up, and the opening moments, which are frequently harkened back to as the film proceeds, is a gut punch that lays out the emotional core onto which the horror plays.
And the horror is what we’re all here for anyways, right? While it is the groups conflicted sorrow that acts as the initial hook to make us even care about the group in the first place, it’s what Bruckner and Adam Nevill, author of the novel on which the film is based, have waiting for us in the woods that solidify this film as “The First Great Horror Film of 2018”. Typically Woodsploitation tries to fit within two subsection: Backwoods (like Wrong Turn, Madman, and Don’t Go In The Woods) and Supernatural (like the Blair Witch Project). But never have we found both of those worlds colliding, in such a synthesis of cerebral dread, that leaves you truly unsure until the final moments. But within that, there is leaps in logic that have to be taken. And that’s something many audiences hate to do.
You’ve watched logic leap films before if you’ve watched any Italian Supernatural film. It happens when a priest inexplicably makes a womans insides vomit from her mouth and eyes in The City of the Living Dead by madman Lucio Fulci. The logic leap here is the question, “How did that happen?” and the answer here is “Duh, the gates of hell!”. That is our invitation to enjoy, without questioning the logic, the rest of the film. This technique isn’t necessarily a strong literary invention, but for films that take place within the fantastical I find it vital for deriving the fullest experience from genre films. We do not need to know how Luke is seeing visions of the liquor store where his friend was murdered within the woods, but we connect with the character through this shared confusion. And it allows the viewer to let go of intellectual hang ups when trying to rationalize what they are seeing. That’s saved for the screen, as the men consistently disbelieve and push back the haunting experiences they continue to share.
Tangentially, because of this, the crack that runs through the film appeared, bolstering my feelings about the revolution that needs to happen in the ways that we see masculinity in media. Fully understanding and accepting the privileges that are given to me as a white male, and knowing my place in dismantling a societal system that is skewed to a patriarchal structure, I force myself everyday to reevaluate and reclaim what masculinity is from what it has been grossly used as since written history. It’s what we all should be doing, y’all. So what may seem to be hypercritical is just a highlighted awareness of how even within a film that depicts a group of friends in a nuanced and familiar way, can still work to do better. And that is we need to see some fucking compassion.
In similar ways that now while yes, dopey blonde girls exist, it is counterintuitive to the needs of today to continue writing stories centered around them as it further reinforces a stereotypes, as to is it counterintuitive to continue pursuing narratives around compassionless men that do the same. The men in this film deal with their emotionally jarring nightmare like bulls in a china shop, sniping and posturing, while a unimaginable creature looms mere yards away. After taking refuge in an abandoned cabin, the four men wake up in various states of duress, the worst of all Phil who is found naked and praying to a frightening altar. They decide to keep moving on, testosterone fueling their silence without the anyone asking the only important question, “Are you ok?” Not every single moment of conflict in this film would have been solved, but it would have felt more sincere. Men of course are known or encouraged for their lack of emotions, historically, but as we see the abuses of power that have come from men and we wonder how we got to this point: it’s because compassion isn’t taught to too many men than I dare count. As spaces are opening up, finally, for underrepresented groups in art to finally have their voices heard I hope more men can take this time in the passenger seat to develop the emotional nuances that I know men have. It could literally save the world.
Beyond all that, The Ritual is a tense adult horror film of the likes we rarely get to see. A creature feature that truly pays off our tested patience in ways I haven’t seen since Zeiram. The twists and turns it takes to get to its emotional finally left me winded, anxious, and ultimately inspired and through gorgeous cinematography and outside of the box art direction cement this as the first truly exciting new horror film of 2018.