The Ritual. 2018. Directed by David Bruckner. Screenplay by Joe Barton.
Based on a novel by Adam Nevill.
Starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, & Kerri McLean.
Entertainment One / Imaginarium Productions
Not Rated. 94 minutes.
Early on, David Bruckner forever earned love and respect here at Father Son Holy Gore for his work. 2007’s The Signal showcased a unique perspective from page to screen alongside directors/writers Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, each with their respective segments. His “Amateur Night” segment in the first V/H/S movie started the anthology out with a bang, taking found footage to new levels with such a simple premise. His segment “The Accident” in 2015’s horror-science fiction anthology Southbound recalled the best, most twisted Twilight Zone episodes.
The director’s latest work proves his enduring power as a horror filmmaker. The Ritual concerns four men taking a hike in northern Sweden along King’s Trail in remembrance of a murdered friend. Along the way they confront a literal embodiment of their grief after stumbling onto a pagan cult worshipping a horrific god in the woods.
The men, used to an urban lifestyle, meet the Old World up close and personal. When they come across the cult and the ancient thing they worship, the men meet a living symbol of their inability to move on from the past.
The particular focus is on the character of Luke (Rafe Spall), previously unable to save their friend from being killed out of debilitating cowardice. Their time in the woods is wrapped in the fatalism of religious worship, so when the friends face mortal danger Luke gets an opportunity to exercise free will— if only he can somehow overcome his guilt and begin living in the present for good.
“These mountains were smashed out by Nordic gods with big bastard hammers”
While the lads hike, Hutch (Robert James-Collier) gives us an important line relating to themes of past v. present. He talks about the history of logging in Sweden, mentioning this is “why Sweden is an untouched land of natural beauty and Britain is a car park.” An obvious commentary on modernity and urbanism, seeing Britain as totally urbanised whereas somewhere like Sweden contains spaces in which the pre-modern remains, at least in part, in nature, not solely in ageing architecture. Britain’s technically part of the Old World. Here we find a distinction between the Old World and an even older one. There’s a suggestion, by Hutch, that hanging onto the past, on a societal level, is beneficial. The plot goes on to show how, in individual ways, staying latched onto the past can be detrimental to the mind, body, and soul.
The whole story and its plot revolves around issues of the past v. present. The entire reason the group are on their trip is due to the shared grief in their recent past, involving the tragic killing of their friend, Rob (Paul Reid). Connections made to Norse mythology aren’t included solely for fodder, either. These images are symbolic of the story’s overall themes. Bruckner uses these images to evoke ideas of the past consuming people via the present, propped up by the plot device of Rob’s murder. Luke is especially susceptible to the past, due to him being there when Rob was killed. He continually sees the image of the store while in the forest. Shelves, liquor bottles, and fluorescent lighting appear in the trees. The woods take on qualities of a psychological space as Luke’s subconscious sprouts his deepest fears literally from the ground.
“Makes you feel insignificant…”
The Ritual‘s creepy creature— a jötunn— likewise takes on psychological qualities just as much as it does physical ones. This jötunn has an animal body, like that of a massive elk, and it’s also made up of skeletal and fleshy parts alike. The creature is itself a liminal space connecting past and present, as well as life and death. During several scenes we see an Elder Futhark Odal rune, symbolising (among other things) ‘possession.’ We also see another rune called algiz, meaning ‘elk.’ In Norse mythology, the elk is often viewed as a “vehicle to the other side” and connects to “the liminal realms of death and the wilderness” (via hyacinth-halcyon). Just like the forest itself, the jötunn isn’t so much a thing as it is a space, representative of a struggle between what’s past and what’s present— this is exactly the struggle Luke experiences.
An important, subtle point about sacrifice comes up in the screenplay. The word jötunn, in Old English, relates to the words ‘voracious’ and ‘gluttonous.’ In Old High German the word means something like ‘greedy.’ The film’s jötunn monster is a horrible god requiring sacrifice from its people— a fatalist god denying free will for the sake of its own gluttony. Luke must confront the fact he essentially sacrificed Rob in that store. He, too, is greedy for choosing cowardice rather than attempting to save his friend, making him into a monster, or at least no better than the pagans feeding human sacrifices to the monster. In the end, he rejects the cult’s fatalism and chooses free will, acknowledging he could’ve done the same in that store. He’s able to come to terms with his cowardice by attempting to save his remaining friends, then escaping the forest. By doing so he’s leaving guilt behind in the woods with the jötunn.
Being focused on the past can prevent us from moving forward, such as when we dwell on guilt or pain, or worship a pagan death god from Norse mythology. The Ritual is about the rituals through which we put ourselves to dull our mistakes and weaknesses, and also those that allow us to break free of them. The cultists give in to their death god, worshipping an anthropomorphic version of their all-consuming guilt and pain. Luke sees the barely living, dusty corpses of the cultists in that creepy room he finds as an image of a pact made to embrace the past, leaving the present— and future— as non-existent, or unable to exist. Although he pays a bittersweet price in losing his friends, he finally sheds the past to live entirely in the present.
Bruckner uses the forest’s wilderness as a parallel to the wild, unpredictable spaces of the mind, allowing a figurative space of imagination to become a physical space of terror for Luke. In this space, Luke confronts the grief that won’t allow him to disconnect from the past once and for all. The past is a nostalgic time, in many ways, and it’s also a destructive time psychologically and societally: neither individuals nor societies should live in the past, or else they risk getting stuck. Luke lost his friends to the horror of the past, whether it was Rob killed in that store or the rest of his pals killed by the ancient jötunn. Nevertheless, he manages not to lose himself, and to stay alive is to live in the present, headed for a future he otherwise couldn’t imagine when caged by his old guilt.