I was very excited for this movie, especially after having enjoyed Netflix's 1922 back in the autumn. Like 1922, which was based on a novella by Stephen King, The Ritual is based on a novel by Adam Nevill. I haven't read Nevill's novel yet, so I can't say how closely the movie followed his work, nor is the novel relevant to this review.
Books and films are completely different mediums for expressing a story, and I firmly believe in judging them based on their individual merits. The movie did intrigue me enough to want to read the novel, just to see how he handled the characterization. Sometimes what translates beautifully on the page isn't conveyed as neatly onscreen. This might have been one of those times.
For those who haven't seen it, The Ritual is about five college friends who go on annual vacations together. When one of the men is murdered, the other four set out on a hike through the Scandinavian wilderness to honor their lost friend's passing. When they take a shortcut, the find themselves in a mysterious forest, "where an ancient evil exists and stalks them at every turn."
So what we have is The Blair Witch Project (sans the shaky camera work) meets Deliverance (sans the rednecks and banjos). Toss in some good old-fashioned ancient evil to liven things up, and yea and truly, that is my kind of movie.
The cinematography is magnificent. The plot is good and there are some genuinely creepy moments. I loved the monster and the bits of mind-bending, which went along with being stalked by something that could see into a person's mind.
I was even more excited by the fact that the lead roles were played by four Shakespearean actors. The acting was excellent, or I wouldn't have sat through it to the end, but these gentlemen weren't given material worthy of their talent. I mean, I suppose screaming FUCK at the top of one's lungs might require the same lung capacity as delivering a soliloquy; however, it lacks a certain eloquence.
My problem with The Ritual had to do with the characters. It's not about the men's likeability. I didn't like Wilfred James (1922), but I stuck with both the novella and the movie, because the story was so good. James' slow descent into madness was a horrific thing to watch. I didn't have to like James, but I did understand his motives and could see that--in the beginning at least--he possessed some redeeming qualities.
This brings me to the crux of my problem with The Ritual. The men had few redeeming qualities. They didn't seem to even like one another, or themselves. From the opening scene, they were just nasty to each other. None of their dialogue seemed like good-natured bantering. The jibes were delivered with barbs, not fondness. There was simply no chemistry between these people. I would have had more sympathy for their plight if I'd thought they liked one another even a little bit, or if perhaps one of them had some redeeming quality to their personalty.
Instead we have the whiny man in pain, the incompetent hiker, the leader by default, the angry man forced to face his guilt. These four types of people could have actually been the perfect recipe for a subtle underplay of tension between the characters had they been fleshed out somewhat. Unfortunately, in the case of the The Ritual, the script never quite allows them to rise above caricatures.
Don't get me wrong. In terms of good horror, I believe the pluses of The Ritual (cinematography, good story, excellent acting) save the movie. I enjoyed it and didn't feel like I'd wasted my time watching it, although it did fall a little flat for me. I just wish the screenplay had spent a little more time bolstering the men's bonds with one another before sending them into the wilderness. I hate it when I root for the monster to win.
Rating: Your mileage may vary.