Dour, thy name is ‘The Ritual’

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There’s not much to look at in David Bruckner’s “The Ritual,” a monster flick out of the United Kingdom. Its setting, the Sarek National Park in Sweden, is known for its desolate beauty, mostly rolling hills and plains pockmarked by primeval forests. Four friends, Luke (Rafe Spall), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Phil (Arsher Ali), are hiking the King’s Trail to honor their friend Rob (Paul Reid), who was murdered in a convenience store robbery. Point of contention in the group: we see in the opening scene Luke had every opportunity to intervene and decided not to.

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Deep into the hike, Dom injures his knee and can’t make the planned route. Instead, Hutch suggests, they should go through a dense nearby forest to get back to their lodge. All agree to the new plan. At least until they find a gutted elk carcass lashed between two trees, some runic inscriptions nearby suggesting pagan magic of some sort. They push on regardless and, one-by-one, they disappear in the night.

Most of the movie is the group walking and talking, set against the emptiest of Northern Sweden. In a better movie, those long, monster-free stretches could be riveting. In “The Ritual,” they’re boring, and writer Joe Barton’s stilted script is the problem. Even in the hands of the main cast, all consistently reliable character actors, the dialogue falls flat, sounding more algorithm-generated than natural.

The characterization is equally weak. Luke is the downtrodden everyman, unable to escape his guilt, and the other guys are throwaways, especially Dom. Dom is the prideful fat man of the group. And that’s it. Beyond his injury necessitating a shortcut through the forest, he’s an especially boring and one-note character in a movie filled with them. Hutch is the go-to leader and nature man who thinks he’s more competent than he is. And Phil is the comic relief, a welcome addition to a story more dour than it has any right to be. Only problem is he’s not funny.

What makes the movie passable is its atmosphere and monster. It feels post-apocalyptic, like the world passed Sarek and its denizens by long ago and for good reason. Bruckner isn’t particularly skilled behind the camera, but he knows how to keep a consistent tone even with weak material. The monster picks up some of the slack, but falls short. Spoiler: it’s a forest deity, like the Leshy from various Slavic folklore. A village in its domain sacrifices people, mostly hikers, who are passing through in order to appease it. Like so many other creature features, though, “The Ritual” builds Leshy up and reveals him when the better option was to keep him in the shadows. Any kick he had stalking the cast disappears when he chases them.

Really, “The Ritual” has an identity problem: is it a monster flick smart enough to look original but too dumb to work? Or is it a coming-of-age story for four friends whose trauma keeps them apart? Bruckner and Barton aren’t skilled enough to make it both. Instead, it’s neither.

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