A lovely mix of horror and building suspense that conceals the mystery tucked menacingly amongst the trees.
By Kayla Wassell
The Ritual pleasantly surprised me, though there is nothing pleasant about this movie from the character’s perspective. The movie begins with five friends planning a vacation together at a bar. Unfortunately, only four make it to the trip, which is a tribute of sorts. The linear plot has a unique style that allows the audience to understand the events that transpired the first night in a way that does not deviate from the timeline. It utilizes dreams to add details and complexity without any flashbacks. The four friends embark on a weeklong long hiking trip, but decide to take a shortcut through a forest when one character injures his knee fourteen hours from their destination. They can even see the town they are aiming for from where they stand, which brings to their attention how going straight through the woods would be much quicker. As one character remarks, “if it was a good shortcut it wouldn’t be called a shortcut, it would be called the route.”
The use of foreshadowing is noticeable but subtle enough the audience cannot understand what the characters were in for, other than it would be nothing good. They pass an old, long abandoned van, their compass stops working the instant they enter the forest, and the music score changes from a sad, yet adventurous tone to an increasingly ominous and rushed feel. It carries a fearful anxiety one cannot quite figure out the source of, yet conveys with certainty these woods are not safe.
While we see what the characters find in the woods as they hike, the audience cannot comprehend the cause or purpose of such horrific findings any better than the group. The dialogue of the friends goes from the easy banter of lifelong companions reminiscing and joking to an abrupt and complete change to wonderfully capture their disbelief and horror of the truly gruesome things they find amongst the trees. The way these actors truly captured the essence of effect of one struggling to comprehend, let alone try to understand the motive behind such grotesque discoveries was perfectly acted. I was impressed with their talents, as a few times the camera lingered on their horrified disbelief before panning to show what caused such a visceral reaction that I did not want to know myself even from the safety of my couch covered in cats. I have a fondness for movies that can terrify me to my core with a simple, yet impactful, facial expression, allowing a few moments to quietly observe the change from shock to terrified to fully settle on a close up without special effects or unsettling music accompanying it.
That is one of the strengths of The Ritual, allowing time for the audience to ponder before adding miniscule details that never fully explain what is happening up until the near end of the movie. We are shown the handiwork of the danger in the woods, but only the quickest glimpses of anything at all. The woods are shot to highlight how dense and endless they are, while the branches look like sinister, dangerous needles, sharp and unsafe. The danger they try to evade is first a thought, then soft growls that grow in intensity as the plot progresses, then movements in the trees out of sight, to brief sights of movement hidden beyond the trees keeps the mystery of the woods hidden. We only know the group is being hunted by something.
This effective technique lets the ever curious mind of the viewer imagine many explanations while the lack of visuals provides the audience the freeness of their own worst fears to be deemed a possibility all with the use of some quick shadows and vague noises. Prolonging the suspense by presenting an unknown terror that allows for such imagined fears from the audience does not detract from the full reveal of the source: It is a peculiar creature so strangely assembled see it creates as much confusion and revulsion as whatever the mind conjured up itself.
The dream sequences mix with their waking hours fluidly, and yet still convey the sudden confusion familiar to those who sleepwalk or experience night terrors. The characters do not appear to be able to tell they are dreaming until they are suddenly not. The images are intense, soaked in symbolism, yet captivatingly surreal. The effects are not over the top but work wonderfully to drive the plot forward while providing often more questions than answers.
The plot uses everything contained in the movie, meaning there is little to no filler, and everything is relevant and has significance. There is one scene where a character endures something off camera, and even though we have no real idea what happens, his terrified screams and cries for help provide enough context for the viewer to be relieved it was not shown. The character’s horrific screaming is more than enough to carry the scene.
The movie is definitely something I recommend experiencing. My hike through some familiar trails the following morning were tense, glancing at imagined movement in the trees. The plot did not end ambiguously, answering all questions by the end of the final shot. It was a lovely mix of horror and building suspense without revealing too much too soon, yet there was a concrete end with no lingering unanswered questions. The dangers in the forest were both psychological and gory, relying more on the former to heighten fear while keeping the mystery tucked menacingly amongst the trees.