All in all, The Ritual is one of the most stunning films that I have seen on Netflix, and probably the best horror film, aligning itself so well with the particular style and vision of Netflix that it often seems to be about the platform as much as its specific characters and scenario. Somewhat unusually, it starts as a lad film, introducing us to a quintet of friends in their late thirties who are having a catch-up at one of their old university watering-holes, and planning their next trip together. Realising that they’re now too old for Ibiza, Amsterdam or Berlin – they’re at just the right age to have watched the proliferation of 90s lad films as lads – they opt for a hike in Sweden, before parting ways for the night and returning to their newfound responsibilities as husbands, fathers and businessmen. At this point, the action narrows to Luke, played by Rafe Spall, the only member of the group who’s still single, and still aching to continue their night on the town. In another era, he might have been framed as a player, but amidst this crowd his bachelor lifestyle hasn’t been able to retain even the slightest traces of lad culture, reminding him, if anything, that lad culture has simply paved the way for the comfortable, respectacle, middle-class adulthood that all his friends seem to be enjoying, and to be enjoining him, rather smugly, to embrace as well.
That conflict crystallises in a soul-searching conversation with Robert, the only friend who agrees to accompany him into a local bottle shop to continue the night, and who’s in the process of gently berating him for his life choices, when the duo stumble into the midst of an armed robbery, at which point Luke hides behind a shelf, leaving Robert to face the muggers. At first, the situation seems somewhat under control, but when Robert repeatedly refuses to part ways with his wedding ring, the muggers stab him in a fit of blind rage, leaving him to bleed on the floor while Luke comes over to try and belatedly save his life. Fast forward six months, and the group of friends – now a quartet – are at the start of the trip to Sweden, which has taken on a new sombreness in the wake of Robert’s death. For one thing, it’s clear that everyone, at some level, blames Luke for having left his friend to face the muggers alone, creating an odd, fractured, dissonant quality to all their interactions that sits quite naturally alongside the parched, sparse, denuded landscapes through which they’re travelling. More literally, it’s clear that the trip has now been arranged partly as a tribute to Luke’s memory, as the four friends perform a formal ceremony on top of one of the highest hills in the region, building a makeshift cairn – just one of many details that makes this feel more like Scotland than Sweden – and leaving some of his possessions there.
At this point, the film has begged a very big question, which is why Robert would refuse to part with a wedding ring during what was clearly a life or death situation, since you would have thought the family values that dictated he keep it on would have made it even more imperative for him to remain alive for his wife and family. From the outset, then, there’s a sense in which Robert’s final gesture is somehow part of the smugness with which these lads have remade themselves over as responsible adults, and that Luke’s supposed cowardice in the face of the crime has been construed, by the group as a whole, as yet another facet of the essentially abject subject position that has kept him single and directionless in a world of middle-class fathers, husbands and businessmen. That paves the way for what would already be a kind of haunted revision of the lad film without the introduction of a supernatural element that ensues after Dom (Sam Troughton) rolls his ankle on the tracj, inducing Luke, Phil (Arsher Ali) and Hutch (Robert James-Collier) to take a short cut through a dense forest in order to arrive back at their destination by nightfall, on what happens to be the last day of the hike as a whole, and the end of their time together.
It’s at this point that The Ritual really starts to feel like a horror film, as well as a distillation of the approach to horror so endemic to Netflix. Reacting against the obsession with found footage and digital glitch that preoccupied so much horror of the last decade and a half, Netflix has built a horror aesthetic around meticulous, high-definition images that serenely command the entire visual field. For the most part, depictions of forests, foliage and plant life has been one of the most fruitful outlets for this aesthetic approach, as one film after another has offered up tableaux so comprehensive in their detail and texture that they almost challenge the viewer to imagine everything that they might be excluding or repressing. That’s especially the case in this forest, which may be one of the most evocative and atmospheric spaces ever depicted on Netflix, replete with one German Romantic tableau after another, like a series of Caspar David Friedrich paintings brought to life. Outside, the air is already pellucid, but it becomes rarefied in a new way when we step into the woods, as the characters are immediately struck by the way in which “the trees soak up the sound,” and every vantage point offers a new testament to the camera’s omniscience.
That aesthetic is all the more dramatic in that the events of the film – an entity in the woods that preys on the lads, and disorients them as it does so – draws quite heavily from The Blair Witch Project, a fact that no small number of critics have noticed. Yet whereas Blair Witch purported to offer a glitchy space outside the grid, The Ritual – and Netflix horror films like it – identify so thoroughly with the grid as to make you feel the necessity, or at least the possibility, of some space outside it in an even more urgent way. Watching it, I was struck by how eerie this film must have been to shoot, since the spaces overwhelm the characters to such an extent that the forest seems to have a sentience that goes above and beyond any supernatural entity that might contain it. The stillness and quietness is only enhanced by the wry, laconic ladspeak that the four men engage in, obliviously at first, but then deliberately and theatrically, in a desperate effort to keep this eerie and emergent silence at bay. At the heart of that stillness are Bruckner’s slow pans, at eye-level, into the middle distance, or what would be the middle distance if there weren’t trees in every direction. In these sustained shots, the high definition is so perfectly and uniformly resolved that it’s impossible to distinguish any one point of focus, a stable sense of depth, or even a distinction between foreground and background, as much as the spectacle of a forest stretching into the distance might appear to offer just this geometric delineration of space.
In the process, it becomes clear that the high-definition “look” of Netflix has renewed deep focus in quite an uncanny way, presenting us with vistas that demand us to scutinise them with increasing urgency, but without providing any ostensible point of scrutiny either. No surprise, then, that the creature stalking the four men always seems on the verge of congealing or converging from Brucker’s pans and aerial shots, nor that the camera’s total and serene command becomes an eerie spectacle in and of itself. While there may be a few chaotic, murky, “handheld” sequences that draw more directly on Blair Witch, they feel somewhat redundant against the uncanny command of this new Netflix camera, just as Adam Wingard’s reboot of Blair Witch perhaps underestimated the extent to which horror has moved on from the glitchy, frenetuc aesthetic that was so shocking and surprising the first time around. By contrast, The Ritual is a masterpiece of pacing, as Bruckner continually lingers on the landscape just long enough for something to almost disclose itself, with the first real appearance of the creature occurring so subtly and quietly that you could easily miss it the first time round, not unlike the first appearance of the strangers in The Strangers.
As might be expected, that problematises the very process of “seeing” the monster, as well as setting the film the challenge of how to visualise the monster head on while also presenting it as something that questions the serene command of the camera visualising it. Put more simply, this is the kind of film that can only work if Bruckner, and screenwriter Joe Barton, can broker a creative and innovative relation between camera and creature, a process that starts with the creature’s first “appearance” to the four men, which also happens to take place on the first night they shelter in the forest, in an abandoned hut. This sequence starts with Luke waking up to relive his experience with Robert in the convenience store, before all men wake up, screaming, in contorted positions – one hunched up against the wall, one staring into the corner of the room, and the other, upstairs, bent over a paganistic figure that they discovered in an empty room the night before. Rather than “see” the monster, all four men instead discover themselves transplanted into postures of unbearable and incredulous sight, left in a state of primal nakedness and abject vulnerability that exposes everything that remains anxious and unspoken in their laddish rapport. Another incident, the following night, results in one of them being taken, but also makes it clearer than ever before that this creature preys on primal fear and buried memories, and that the primal anxieties that have brought these men together are forming its sustenance.
For the second act of the film, that could almost play as a dark and terrifying comic riff on the lad subconscious, as Bruckner beautifully draws out an incipient hysteria to this lad mode – think the films of Guy Ritchie – even as the solipsism of lad culture allows the remaining three men to engage in one petty squabble after another as the creature grows closer and closer. Even their best laid plans are not enough to prevent it picking them off one by one, and by the time that Luke and Dom are left it’s clear that the creature is moving from the least to most anxious members of the group, and that it is feeding, more specifically, off their anxieties about their masculinity their relation to the masculinity of the group as a whole. It’s a powerful turn, then, when Luke and Dom find themselves captured by a local tribe, who imprison them and reveal that the creature is in fact one of the last descendants of the original Scandinavian deities of the area, and part of a cult of monstrous masculinity whereby they present it with sacrifices in order to both appease it and receive endless life from it in turn. Where Dom is prepared as the next sacrifice, a mark left on Luke’s chest during his first night in the forest makes it clear, the tribespeople say, that the creature has chosen him to be one of the worshippers, and to live permanently, and indefinitely, in their cloistered, cultic community, rather than returning to the outside world.
In other words, the primal anxiety about failing to achieve a “proper” masculine adulthood that distinguished Luke from his friends now makes him an ideal worshipper of this creature, which can apparently sense this primal need, and this need for primal guidance. In that way, this last part of The Ritual forms part of a broader trend in recent horror films in which millennial crises of masculinity have played out by way of settler dramas, or frontier dramas, such as The Witch and Winchester, in which the heroic male orientation towards the horizon has been compromised by a broader effeminising or emasculating presence. As the slow pans into the forest are replaced with the equally unsettling opacity of wood panels and dirt floors, Luke now has to make the difficult decision of whether to join the cult, and receive endless life, or resist the cult, and face near-certain death. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he chooses to fight the creature, especially once Robert is sacrificed before his eyes and he has nothing left to lose, but this decision is less conventional than it might seem at first glance, if only because of the particular aesthetic register of what has gone before.
In another kind of film, to be sure, destroying this creature would allow Luke to come to terms with his past, and make some kind of expiation for his supposed abandonment of his friend in the convenient store. Yet given that there are no friends left to save, it’s questionable what resistance really means at this point, especially since expiation, albeit of a cultic and ceremonial sort, is precisely what this creature is offering him. After all, this creature is merely a personification – albeit an extreme personification – of the primal cleansing ritual that the quartet came to Sweden in search of in the first place. As a result, resisting the creature is actually what allows Luke to realise that he doesn’t need to come to terms with his past, allowing the viewer, by extension, to start posing questions that seemed almost unthinkable at the beginning of the film, particularly the question of why Robert would risk the actual future of his wife and family for the sake of the symbolic power of his wedding ring. If anything, Luke discards this primal need for performative masculine responsibility in his final confrontation with the creature, a gesture that the creature recognises as somehow more primal than anything it has encountered, more or less leaving Luke to wander back out to the open country, where he concludes the film on a single, agonising howl – the kind of primal scream that the group should have done collectively, but that now turns their shared male angst back upon itself in an involuted and impotent way.
While this may be the last image of the film, it’s not the concluding spectacle, since arguably the greatest achievement of The Ritual is the creature that Bruckner and Barton devise to culminate all this suspense. In part, it’s based on the creature in Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, the book upon which the film is based, but it’s also partly a creation of the director and screenwriter too, who manage to steer clear of what often seems like a forced choice in contemporary horror monsters. On the one hand, cinema and television seem overpopulated with monsters that are purely subjective, shape-shifting and a perspective of the victim, or else part of some amorphous digital, or metaphorically digital, ether. At the same time, however, any recourse to a more plastic monster inevitably feels derivative too, if only because the field of prosthetics seems somewhat exhausted by this point in time. To that end, Bruckner opts for a chilling and majestic middle ground, since this creature is little more than a gaze around which it has accumulated the bodies and faces of the other creatures whose fears it has consumed, an amalgam that nevertheless moves with an autonomy and intentionality all of its own. And in that gesture lies the strange, monstrous, agonised substrate of the lad movie so beautifully and eerily drawn to the surface by The Ritual, a high point for Netflix and one of the creepiest films I’ve seen on the small screen.