The Ritual (Movie Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: Four friends mourning the loss of a mate decide to go on a hike in the remote hills of Norway. After a shortcut through the woods gets them lost, the men find themselves hunted by a mysterious, unseeable presence.

PLOT: The lost-in-the-woods genre will never get old as long as it's done right. There are plenty of ways to muck it up and make things about as scary as a wet napkin – as all horror fans know too well by now – but when handled with skill, these movies are still able to burrow deep into the subconscious and stoke those primitive fears that make us want to hide under the covers. Personally, I'm still quite capable of being scared of the dark; or, more to the point, of what unthinkable things lurk in the dark, and there's no location that better represents that primal dread than the woods at night. Maybe I've just seen too many movies, but the thought of wandering around a desolate forest with no earthly idea of where I'm going, or what might be watching me, is utterly chilling, so when a movie captures that specific atmosphere, I'm primed and ready to be freaked out.

David Bruckner's THE RITUAL mostly does the trick. For about 2/3 of its running time, it's a very creepy example of this sub-genre, presenting us with a situation that comes across as palpably hopeless and terrifying. Even better, the four protagonists at the center of the crisis genuinely seem frightened by their predicament, adding to the film's increasingly alarming vibe. If, like me, you begin to feel uncomfortable when something starts moaning and moving about in the wilderness, just out of sight, while flashlight beams search pleadingly for an explanation, you're likely to want to partake in this RITUAL.

The Ritual movie review David Bruckner Rafe Spall

The set-up is very simple. After a tragedy takes the life of their pal, four British friends decide to take a hike along the majestic hilltops and mountains of Norway, a vacation they were planning the night their mate Robert was killed. The characters aren't incredibly distinct, but we get to know them well enough to like them. Making the biggest impression is Luke (Rafe Spall), and that's because he's the one carrying the heaviest burden: he was there, mere yards away, the night his friend Robert was murdered by a junkie in a liquor store, and he was powerless to stop it. (Or was he just too big of a coward?) There's a sense that the others blame him for the incident, since he walked away unscathed, but part of the reason for the hike is to purge those demons and say farewell to Robert for good and all.

A shortcut through the woods is a fine way to kill any positive vibes, and it's kind of amusing that THE RITUAL has no pretenses about how to get its characters into deep shit quickly; it's just, "there's a shortcut through those woods," and off we go. Naturally, once in the dense forest, the guys quickly notice things are amiss. Finding a disembowled deer carcass hanging from a tree is the first bad sign, a cult-like marking on another tree is the second. But when they decide to huddle up in an empty (?) cabin during a rainstorm, well, that's when things go from creepy to "are we going to survive this ordeal?"

I won't spoil what goes on from there, but Bruckner keeps the pacing tight and the visuals eerie, with the guys seeing plenty of ominous totems that confirm they're not in Kansas anymore. As can always be counted upon, members of the group begin to turn on one another, as fear turns to panic turns to potential madness. You really can't blame them; if you woke up the next morning the way these guys do, you'd be losing your mind too. The four actors are all very good, turning in performances that are realistic and compelling (Sam Troughton, as the resident complainer Dom, is really effective). What makes this particular lost-in-the-woods scenario more fun than usual is that these are men in their 30s/40s who are petrified, not your bargain basement whiny teenagers. Movies like this are always more unnerving when the focus is on adults; if these grown-ass men are scared silly in this situation, I guess any of us would be.

The Ritual movie review David Bruckner Rafe Spall

As with many films where a mystery is kept hidden for most of the running time, THE RITUAL loses a little steam when it reveals the "what" behind what's been going. The third act of the film isn't quite as satisfying as what has come before it, and that's possibly because whatever we're anticipating will always be more disturbing than what is actually presented to us. In this case, the overall explanation is somewhat predictable, and the film becomes a nightmare of a different sort, with a handful of WTF-worthy sights that are more odd than scary. That said, I'll give credit where credit is due: Bruckner shows us some wild stuff, and the main antagonist of the piece isn't just the same old thing but a rather strange creation indeed.

The movie's conclusion is abrupt (one could imaging an epilogue having been cut out), so I was left hanging a little by THE RITUAL. But while its ending didn't knock me out, I certainly found the film to be, for the most part, a spooky and tension-filled experience, bolstered by four solid performances and very crisp direction by Bruckner. (One truly wonders what he could have done with the FRIDAY THE 13th remake he was attached to.) And if nothing else, THE RITUAL confirmed my thinking that no one should ever, ever take a shortcut through the woods.

The Ritual



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About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.