A Forest of Suffering: Thoughts on The Ritual (2017)

Though I wouldn’t call myself particularly adventurous, I am a nature lover. I can often find joy hiking through the mountains or wandering down trails, immersed in the trees — particularly when I can share the experience with a group of friends.

That said, I also have a healthy respect for the wild world. Nature can be a beast. You never know when a light rain can turn into a hazardous storm, when a twisted ankle can turn a leisurely hike into an ordeal. You never know what might be hiding among the trees just out of your sightline. The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, expresses both the beauty and uncanniness of nature.

After five college friends spend a night drinking, one of their group is murdered in a robbery gone wrong. In his honor, the four remaining friends travel to Sweden for an epic hiking trip in his honor. Along the way, a sprained ankle offers a minor obstacle, shifting the experience into tediousness. In an effort to reach their destination more quickly, the group decides to take a short cut through a valley forest.

As you can imagine, this turns out to be a mistake. Light dims inside the forest, filtering through the tangled branches of trees. Every direction looks much the same as the other — only trees behind trees behind trees. The movie makes excellent use of this lack of visual depth. A branch breaks in the distance, but from what direction? Something moves through the trees, impossible to see clearly. It could be a deer, a bear, or something worse.

Most likely something worse.

Things in The Ritual quickly escalate from uncomfortable to very, very wrong. The group of friends find strange symbols, the corpse of an animal displayed in the branches of a tree, and other strange and disturbing visions. The results are gruesome and bloody.

The scenes in the forest are unsettling and tense. I especially enjoyed the slow reveal of the creature, which represents one of the coolest creature designs that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s such a weird and uncanny being, and the way it moved through the trees had me scanning every scene, wondering if it might be there, lurking in the background.

The short (and non-spoilery version) of this review ends here. The Ritual is a well written, solid horror movie with carefully crafted scares. The experience on the whole was enjoyable, and I would recommend watching it, even if just for the reveal of the creature.

However, my overall feelings about The Ritual are a bit more complex. In order to talk about them, I have to dive deeper into the story, which necessitates entering spoiler territory.

So, here we go.

The Aftermath of Guilt

The Ritual opens with five college friends — Luke, Hutch, Phil, Dom, and Robert — having a few drinks together. As their night is coming to an end, Luke and Robert stop in a convenience store to purchase some additional booze. Unfortunately, and unknown by them, the store is being robbed.

When he realizes what's happening, Luke acts instinctually, shuffling backwards in fear and hiding at the end of one of the shelves. Just as he is about to muster up the courage to come out from hiding, Robert is attacked and killed by the two thieves, who then escape through the front door.

Luke hides from the robbers. (Screenshot of The Ritual.)

The question hangs in the air: If Luke had stepped up and stood by his friend, would Robert still be alive? The pain of survivor's guilt is difficult enough to navigate without the added weight of blame that comes with what may be perceived as "cowardice." None of us know what we would actually do when faced with a dangerous situation. I would like to think that I'd step forward and defend my friend, but fear is a powerful emotion capable of erasing all thought except survival. Whatever choices a person makes when faced with imminent danger, this is the the kind of thing that haunts you — a moment to be replayed again and again in the back of a person's mind.

The weight of guilt that Luke places on himself is the driving force of this movie. Although Luke had expressed zero interest in hiking in Sweden at the begining, he and the rest of the group chose to make the trip in Robert's honor. As a way of honoring him and his wishes, they gather together on the beautiful hillside and hold a memorial. It's a beautiful, quiet moment, cast with a mild underlying tension of Luke's feelings of guilt.

A moment of remembrance. (Screenshot from The Ritual.)

Shortly after continuing on with their journey, Dom's twisted ankle puts a damper on the hike and the group decides to take a short cut through the woods.  Almost immediately, signs of malice are discovered, including strange symbols scratched into the tree bark and, even more disturbingly, an animal carcass strung up and displayed in a tree.

The group presses on — until a sudden rain storm drives them under the shelter of a creepy abandoned house. Here, the group discovers a headless religious idol made of sticks. Despite the weirdness, they choose the shelter of the house over the violence of the storm.

Luke wakes in the night to a vision of entering the convenience store where Robert died. He walks down the isle, selects a bottle of vodka, and then sees blood within the bottle. Suddenly, the image is ripped away and he finds himself standing alone in the trees, a bloody claw wound marking his chest.

Though all four of the friends were beset by nightmares that night, Luke seems to be the focus of the creature's attention. He continues to see visions of the convenience store, that horrifying moment of his friend's death merging more and more with the horrors he discovers within the forest. The forces at work here insistently poke at this memory, like they are picking at a scab, making the wound raw.

In light of this, it makes sense that Hutch is the first of the four to die. Hutch is a guide in this story, acting as a grounded and comforting figure, his concern and compassion for each member of the group almost fatherly. He wants everyone to get through this trip safely and, hopefully, healed. Even if Hutch might have his own internal doubts about what happened, he cares about Luke and wants him to be okay. In fact, Hutch is the only one of the friends to openly absolve Luke, reminding him that he wasn't to blame for what happened to Robert. Extending this further, he even places his trust in Luke as the situation grows increasingly dire.

If the purpose of the creature is to dredge up Luke's memories and make him suffer, then Hutch represents the greatest obstacle to this goal. Thus, getting rid of Hutch is necessary, since removing him is a removal of hope for Luke and the friends.

The loss of Hutch is a huge blow, one that could easily unravel the group. But Luke leans into the trust that Hutch placed on him. He battles his own fear and strives to help Dom and Phil escape the woods alongside him — to no avail. One by one, his remaining two friends are stripped away as the secret of the ritual is revealed.

The creature stalking them turns out to be a forest god, who rules over a small village of people from whom it demands blood sacrifice. Luke's friends have been figures in this offering, though Luke himself is to be spared.

As one of the woman tells him, the god is able to take away their pain and grant the people of the village immortality. This is why Luke is chosen to join the village. His pain and guilt over Robert's death is immense, and he could let all of it go — all he has to do is kneel down and worship the forest god.

One of the many catches to this is that to worship this creature means being owned by it, as the people of this village are never able to leave. Immortality is a kind of stagnancy. The same god that consumes their pain also traps them, keeping them from moving on or moving forward. In other words, Luke's choice is to eight become ensnared by his pain, living forever in this forest, or escape it and return to the world.

As one would expect, he chooses the latter. He fights back against the creature and manages run, evading the its pursuit — until he is able to burst out of the forest as the first light is starting to dawn. The creature, unable to pursue him beyond the line of the trees, roars in frustration.

Luke roars back, calling forth all his own strength and rage, as if claiming his own power over the shadowy feelings that had previously ruled him. He then turns to face the world and the rising sun.

It should be a powerful cathartic moment — and yet, it feels hollow. After fighting to escape the horrors of the woods and overcoming his own suffering, what is he left with? All of his friends are dead, and the movie heavily implies that he doesn't have many (or any) strong relationships beyond them.

One moment mirrors another. At the beginning of this film, his pain is directly related to surviving a random, brutal, and violent event, while his friend did not. Now, once again, he is in the same place. No matter how hard he fought to save his friends this time around, he finds himself alone, the sole survivor of a brutal and violent event.  

As the sun rises and the world fills with light, Luke trudges over the hillside. The camera opens wide, revealing the horizon ahead of him, an empty world he will have to go forward into alone.

And somehow, I can't quite consider that a victory.

The wide, empty world. (Screenshot from The Ritual.)
Andrea Blythe
Andrea Blythe writes speculative poetry and fiction. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale (Interstellar Flight Press, 2020).