The opening sequence of The Ritual doesn't aim to unsettle you right away. We meet a group of aging college buddies enjoying a night out at the pub, bantering about "the crisps," and attempting to plan a vacation together. The anxieties they share aren't unique, but they're sketched out with enough specific details to make the characters feel lived-in. Rafe Spall, who you may recognize from Edgar Wright films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, plays Luke, the member of the group who can't quite give up the hard-partying habits of his youth. He's aghast that one friend wanted to plan their getaway over brunch. "I'm not gonna plan a lad's weekend over an avocado on toast," he quips.
For the first few minutes, the show might feel like a BBC sitcom you've stumbled onto late at night. But soon enough a violent incident occurs, one that leaves a friend dead and Luke reeling with guilt. A flash forward ahead six months to the present finds the guys in the middle of a hiking trip in Sweden. What was originally supposed to be a raucous holiday has turned into a somber journey. They attempt to pay tribute to their friend by piling rocks, drinking, and saying a few words in his honor. It's clear that resentment towards Luke for his role in the tragic death still lingers.
Bruckner handles all this set-up with a steady hand: the mountains look incredible, the tension is carefully modulated, and the performances don't have that direct-to-DVD vibe that has hobbled prior Netflix horror releases like Clinical or Mercy. (On the Netflix horror scale, this is closer in quality to Gerald's Game.) When things start to go wrong -- one of the men (Sam Troughton) injures his knee -- there's a feeling of genuine dread. You don't want to watch these guys make the bad decisions you know are coming. The Blair Witch-like premise, which comes from a 2011 novel by writer Adam Nevill, isn't exactly original, but the careful, slow-burn approach is effective. Especially in the first half, the movie recalls the studied intensity of The Ruins, one of the more underrated horror-thrillers of the '00s.