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Character and theme in The Ritual

The Ritual

Directed by David Bruckner
Screenplay by Joe Barton
Story (novel) by Adam Nevill

IMDb page

The story, as told in the Netflix blurb:

Four friends with a long-standing — but strained — connection take a hiking trip into the Swedish wilderness, from which they may never return.

The rest of it (spoilers coming, so go watch the movie before reading any further):

We open on four friends in a pub, talking over ideas for their next big trip.

The key here is Luke. He is the main character, and when we meet him, he’s also an asshole. He makes fun of his friends, shooting down their ideas and just generally being an insufferable, condescending, holier-than-thou, smarmy, always-knows-better jerk (his Twitter account would be something else, I’m sure).

Leaving the pub, Luke goes across the street to pick up a bottle of vodka from a store, dragging Rob with him. There’s a robbery, and Rob freezes while Luke ducks out of sight, hiding at the end of an aisle.

Things escalate, and Rob is killed, viciously beaten to death by a thug with a baseball bat. Luke doesn’t intervene.

We jump ahead six months. The four remaining friends – Luke, Dom, Hutch and Phil – are on a hike in a vast, misty area of the Swedish wilderness. They chose it because it’s what Rob wanted to do – the trip is in his honour.

Dom injures his knee, making it difficult for him to traverse the terrain. The group is aiming for a lodge somewhere off in the distance, but due to Dom’s struggles, they decide to take a shortcut through a thick, dark forest.

Things start going all weird and spooky. They come across strange symbols. They encounter a newly- (and gruesomely-) killed deer carcass, hanging from a tree.

They decide to take refuge in an abandoned cabin for the night, despite it being horrifying and the presence of a strange effigy in an upstairs room. They also dismiss Luke’s concerns over the strange sounds he’s hearing outside. They don’t take the thing upstairs seriously, either, joking about it as night falls.

All four learn an important lesson over the next few hours, though, as they’re plagued by nightmares. We only see Luke’s – it’s tied to the convenience store incident – and he wakes up with strange, bloody wounds on his chest. Nobody wants to talk about anything, and they get ready to move on.

Back on the trail, then. Dom is hurting, the going slow. There’s an important thematic point here, which I’ll get more into later – Dom’s knee is aching, and he’s slowing the group down. He’s told sometimes, you just have to push through the pain.

In any case, they’re not sure which direction they’re travelling. Luke volunteers to climb a ridge to get a better view. Up there, he sees… something. Something big, moving amongst the trees.

Luke tells the others. Nobody believes him. Emotions are running high. Dom blames everything on Luke – it’s his fault they’re stuck here, because it’s his fault Rob died.

Dom wasn’t there, but he questions how Rob’s brains could get bashed in, and Luke can come out the other side without so much as a drop of blood on him. Luke slugs Dom.

Still lost, night falls again. The monster claims its first victim of the four, whisking Hutch away, impaling him on a tree. The survivors press on, but it isn’t long before Phil is taken and killed in a similar manner.

This leaves Dom and Luke, and the thing, out there in the woods. Luke tells Dom they need to move. Dom suggests a piggyback, Luke tells him they’re going to have to run.

They agree, and take off into the woods, Luke supporting Dom as they move as quickly as they can. They come across a lit trail, torches burning on either side. The thing bears down on the pair, trees cracking and snapping as it moves through the dark forest, just out of view.

The trail ends a cabin. Dom and Luke get inside, but they’re not alone. They’re knocked out, only to wake up the next morning, chained to a wall.

They’re soon introduced to the others, a group of people, cultists, worshipping the ancient god in the woods. They provide sacrifices, it provides eternal life.

Luke’s wounds are noted. One of the others has similar wounds, in fact (they probably all do, but we don’t see that). Luke has been marked, and Dom is chosen for the sacrifice.

Luke is actually told outright that he’ll bow before the monster, too. He asks why – because, he’s told, “your pain is great.” We’ll come back to this, too.

Shortly after, Dom tells Luke about his nightmare. He tells Luke he’s resigned to dying here, but Luke must burn the place down.

Then, he’s taken, tied up outside, to await the forest god. Luke dislocates his thumb to get out of his restraints. He wanders into a room occupied by those who are living the “eternal life” provided by the god: they’re husks, rotting away, barely able to groan, let alone move. Luke sets fire to them, causing chaos.

The buildings burn and the god rages. Luke is almost free, running to the edge of the forest, carrying a gun he took from the cultist stockpile (they have a lot of gear, taken from all the other people they’ve kidnapped and sacrificed over the years).

Luke turns to see the god killing a cultist – one that was kind to him earlier – and he shoots it. It pursues, and the two have a face-off in the woods. It tries to force him to bow. Instead, Luke stands, stares it down, and wounds it with an axe. And that’s Luke’s opening. He flees, finally escaping the forest, passing a point that the god can’t.

Our last sight is Luke walking across a clearing, toward a road and safety.

Final thoughts: A good, and tight, horror flick. The monster looks very cool. Incredibly atmospheric, very well-acted, and very creepy. Think Blair Witch, the Wicker Man, a touch of Algernon Blackwood’s the Wendigo and a dash of Lovecraft. Based on a novel, which I haven’t read (sorry). Worth a watch.

Character

The main character is Luke. As mentioned, he’s an asshole when we meet him, but that’s not the real Luke. The real Luke comes out during the store robbery, when he hides, refusing to get involved, even as his friend is killed.

He briefly thinks about coming out of hiding, even flipping the bottle of vodka he’s hold over so he’s wielding it as a club.

He decides against it, though, and Rob is killed. If Luke had stepped out, of course, it would have gone differently. They’d be alive; maybe injured, but alive. It’s a good, revealing scene. Luke’s earlier personality was a mask.

Six months later, when we meet Luke again, he’s a shell of his former self. Quiet, clearly pained. Smokes a lot. Troubled and guilt-ridden.

As things progress, he’s “marked” with a wound on his chest, something that’s tied to the pain he feels over his friend’s death, and his own inaction. He has several nightmares and visions concerning the robbery over the course of the film.

He’s also the voice of reason. In a film that deals with vulnerability – we’ll get to that – he’s the most-vulnerable one. He’s the one who’s stopped trying to cover up his feelings. He speaks up – as much as he can – about weakness and fear, such as when he tries to tell his friends about the strange noises he hears outside of the cabin.

Luke is the one that has changed. His friends still cover up their vulnerabilities – they don’t talk about their dreams, for example, and tell Dom to “push” through the pain of his injured knee (Dom, of course, insists he’s fine anyway). They still make jokes early in the film about the effigy in the upstairs room.

As things progress, Luke begins to return to his confident self, but his confidence is different. He wants to help his friends – he searches for them actively as they’re taken by the monster in the night. He tells Dom he won’t leave him when it’s just the two of them left, and he supports him as they’re pursued by the beast.

And in the end, Luke not only injures himself – his thumb – to get out of his constraints and do what he can to destroy this little cult, he even takes a shot at the monster itself, causing it to chase him. He stares it down, refusing to worship it, and then attacks it, winning his freedom.

For Luke, it’s all a chance to find some sort of redemption for his earlier cowardice that led to Rob’s death. He takes the opportunity, sure, and he’s a different person at the end than he was at the start.

To paraphrase any number of screenwriting tips and books, character growth is seeing someone do something at the end of the film they couldn’t possibly do at the start. Luke’s arc certainly works in this regard.

When we meet Luke, he’s fake confident, smarmy, selfish. He plays a major role in Rob’s death – if not outright causes it – by hiding when he’s confronted with a dangerous situation, and leaving Rob to fend for himself.

Through the film, that version of Luke disappears. He transforms as things get more and more desperate. He doesn’t hide from anything, his fear goes away, he transforms.

At the end, he not only injures himself to escape, but he actively puts himself in danger to bring about the cult’s end and stop it from killing anyone else. He even shoots, and faces off with, an ancient forest god to earn his own freedom.

It’s not perfect, though. We’ll get to that, but first:

Theme

Theme can hard to articulate, but I think in the Ritual, it boils down to vulnerability – specifically, the fear of showing any – and the consequences of not talking about our problems or emotions.

This story is, after all, about four guys who try pretty hard to be macho and unaffected. The main character is a show-offy, condescending asshole when we meet him, but it’s fake – inside he’s a coward. We don’t know why he’s like that; it’s safe to assume the other characters don’t either. Whatever Luke is compensating for, it isn’t the kind of thing they’re supposed to talk about.

In any case, there are several examples of the script exploring how these characters trying to be tough, and refusing to acknowledge or talk about their problems and/or fears, causes further problems:

  • Luke clearly didn’t talk about what happened in the robbery with anyone. I get this, of course – he’s embarrassed and guilt-ridden. But this causes tensions to boil over, and the fight with Dom, and the ensuing resentment (it’s unclear what the others think – Luke asks one of them, but doesn’t get an answer).
  • The other three making jokes and dismissing Luke’s concerns at the cabin (the sounds, the effigy).
  • Dom’s injury – he’s told to push through the pain. That’s what he’s supposed to do, right? No weakness.
  • Dom’s insistence that he can walk. After his injury, it’s mentioned that the four friends could simply wait – they have a reservation at the lodge, and if they don’t make it, a search party would be sent to look for them. They weren’t very far away, so they could have waited it out for a few days, been rescued, and avoided the whole nasty episode.

In fact, things only start turning around for Luke after this attitude changes. He supports Dom as they run, for example, and they’re doing well until they run into the cultists.

And further, things really don’t start opening up until Dom finally comes clean about his nightmare, a subject that wasn’t discussed at all prior. Then, Luke finds the courage to escape and fight back.

There are other little touches along these lines, too. The cultists who have “eternal life” aren’t able to move, or really communicate, for example, clearing the way for Luke to start the fire without fear of anyone else being notified.

Or, the forest god being all-mighty within its territory, but being unable to follow Luke out of the forest. And along those same lines, the monster being vulnerable to Luke’s “marking” – it doesn’t, or can’t, just kill him, instead trying to force him to worship it.

I’m probably missing a few examples here. The point is, in the earlier part of the film, when the four friends are acting as four male friends would – trying to be macho and all that – things go badly. It’s only after they start opening up to each other, and actively supporting each other, the tide begins to turn.

Wrapping it up

The problem with all this is, of course, that the resolution for Luke is messy, which in and of itself certainly isn’t a bad thing, but it didn’t quite click here, in my own very humble opinion.

Luke does grow, and he’s a better person at the end than he was at the start. He’s faced his demons – literally – and he did good in the grand scheme of things. He’s overcome his fear and cowardice, and made a stand.

But all his friends are dead. He sets fire to the cultists’ village, but who knows if he got aill all of them. And the forest god is still out there, watching him go.

So what’s next? Does he tell the authorities? Is there a Call of Cthulhu-esque raid? Maybe. But despite his being a better character than he was at the start, despite his grown, Luke is most definitely in a worse spot, despite his overcoming his big flaw.

If he was so guilt-ridden over Rob’s death, what’s he like now? The last shot, of Luke walking to freedom, betrays what must be a very intense storm raging inside of him.

The point is, I want to see the fallout – I want to see what Luke does next, how he handles everything that came before. So, a bit too tidy, perhaps; the running time would have benefitted by giving us an idea of the aftermath.

As always, if I missed anything, or I’m flat-out wrong, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter, or via email. I’d love the discussion, and I’d love to hear about what I might have overlooked or misinterpreted.

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