By Jonathan Wojcik


2017's The Ritual is a acclaimed British production directed by David Bruckner, working off a screenplay by Joe Barton that was adapted, in turn, from a novel of the same name by author Adam Nevill. Our main characters are Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Rob (Paul Reid), who begin the movie debating their holiday plans at a bar. Rob has always wanted to go hiking in Sweden, but the other four aren't interested. When Luke and Rob are sent to buy more alcohol however, they run afoul of an armed robbery, and Rob is killed for refusing to give up his wedding ring while Luke continues to hide, too paralyzed by fear to intervene...a detail of the story that he evidently keeps to himself.

In Rob's honor, the remaining friends decide to go hiking in Kundsleden Sweden where they intend to hold their own private memorial, venturing far from any sign of civilization to build a small cairn and share a flask of whiskey...but from there, the trip beings to take a turn for the worse. Dom injures his knee when he trips on the uneven ground, the shortcut they attempt to take back gets them hopelessly lost in the forest, where they encounter strange carvings, mutilated animals and finally a torrential rainstorm. All the while, they seem to be stalked by someone or something in the darkness of the trees and suffer from a number of disorienting hallucinations. Luke, in particular, will keep re-living distortions of the liquor store incident throughout the film, still wracked with the guilt of his cowardice.

Convenient shelter presents itself in an abandoned cabin, but there, the group discovers a disturbing, headless effigy incorporating what appear to be long decaying human limbs. In the morning, Luke discovers that he's bleeding from multiple small, round punctures in his chest and Phil is praying to the statue in an inexplicable trance. They collect themselves and head back out, setting up a camp the following night, but are awakened by the sound of Phil screaming and are unable to find trace of Hutch. As they search, their entire campsite seems to go missing - it's as if the forest itself is changing shape when they're not looking - and when they finally do find their missing friend, he's been gruesomely impaled on the branch of a tree.

It's obvious by now that they're being hunted, and sure enough, Phil is soon dragged off into the woods by an unseen stalker. The last two survivors eventually find what looks like a small village, but one that had to have been isolated from society for many decades, if not centuries, and raises enough alarm bells for the two to try and hide in a cottage - where they're suddenly knocked out. They awaken tied up in a cellar, where an elderly woman displays the same strange wounds as Luke, and informs the men that one is to be sacrificed.

Dom goes first, tied to a post until he hallucinates that his wife has suddenly appeared to rescue him. In reality, it's the same mysterious beast that has been stalking them through the forest; a hulking thing whose massive cranium resembles an amalgam of mutilated human bodies, tiny eyes glowing from the blackness of an empty cavity in the inverted, headless torso that serves as its "face!"

While this creature impales Dom on another tree, a younger woman shows Luke some sympathy, explaining to him that the marks on his chest mean that he was chosen not for sacrifice, but for the opportunity to join them. The creature, she says, a Jotunn, the offspring of the god Loki, that it reaches out to those suffering great emotional pain and that, in exchange for sacrifices, it can offer its willing followers the gift of eternal life.

Unimpressed with the sales pitch, Luke opts to escape, finding weapons and a torch before venturing upstairs to a cabin's attic. There he finds the hideous truth of the girl's words: emaciated, mummylike bodies still gasping and breathing, helpless vassals that exist only to forever continue their worship of the demigod. Luke sets fire to them all, freeing them from their eternal prisons whether they wanted it or not.

Luke flees the enraged creature as its followers and their homes burn, and the tense chase sequence only ends when he finally, narrowly breaches the tree line, as it seems the creature is physically unable to leave the forest. The film ends as the lone survivor begins his arduous hike back through the mountains, a single car the sole sign of modern life far off in the distance.


This has been by far the shortest of my movie synopses, with much of The Ritual consisting of that disastrous trek through the woods before its final act rather sharply escalates, and the slow burn pays off when we finally meet our main villain. In the original novel, this particular Jotunn is a female named Moder, which can alternatively be translated as "mother" or "grief," though the novel also describes her something like a monstrous goat with humanoid arms.

The film's take is a gorgeously peculiar and threatening design by modern cinematic standards, though we can only see it clearly in production art; something vaguely like a scarred, hairless and hideously enlarged elk. The long, peglike spinous processes of its vertebrae protrude down the flesh of its back, its rotten skin is pulled taught against its tremendous ribcage and tufts of filthy, matted fur cling sparsely to its veiny limbs, its much longer forelegs giving it a stance closer to a hunched humanoid than a natural quadruped.

Most striking of course is the oversized and faceless head, which resembles an entire bloated, humanoid body with a headless neck stump. The arms of this body extend into oversized, stretched-out hands resembling a pair of antlers, while a pair of long, pale human arms and hands dangle where the torso's "legs" should be. Between these arms is the hollow cavity I mentioned before, inside of which are its small, luminous eyes, no bigger than those of a person. A pair of disconnected ungulate mandibles also flank this opening, more like the jaws of an insect, and another set of jawbones can be seen emerging from the sides of the whole "head." There's also a pair of hanging, ragged tassels of skin or fur, like the "wattles" or toggles of a goat. And finally, though never quite visible in the film, the official design does have a...well, it has something pretty large hanging between its rear legs. It's obscured by the limbs in this shot of the maquette, but it is not a tail. Okay it's actually another pair of arms, yes, but they're red, and they're positioned exactly to evoke a dillywhacker.

You can read more about what went into the being's design in an interview with FX supervisor Ben White, offering among other juicy tidbits that, yes, the cavity housing the eyes represents a ripped-open crotch.

So what precisely is she, besides a #girlboss rocking what I dare call one of the most memorable and distinct head designs in an on-screen creature since quite possibly Giger's Xenomorph? If we're to take her cult at their word, then she is literally a Jotunn of Norse myth, a primordial giant rivaled only by the gods in power, and this particular Jotunn is said to be the "bastard offspring" of the trickster deity himself, Loki. The way Moder impales her victims on trees even parallels the legend of Odin's self-sacrifice, when he granted knowledge to humanity by spearing himself to the trunk of Yggdrasil.

...But just how much of ancient legend is true within the continuity of The Ritual? It's hard to imagine these mythical figures existing in a straightforward and literal form, especially given how bizarre our alleged Jotunn really is. It feels much more likely that the legends may have been symbolic of more abstract natural forces, names and forms assigned by ancient people to things a bit beyond those logical confines, which I guess is how we all assume "gods" work and is literally how they arise in human culture to begin with, isn't it? The presence of this monster, however, challenges the in-universe boundaries between mythology as literal fact and mythology as allegory. Could it even be that Moder is something else entirely, something older and more nameless that inspired human myth, or at least came to take advantage of it? I wonder how sapient the entity even truly is, how much it really understands of what's happening around it and why it really demands "sacrifices." She could only have the mind of an animal herself for all we truly know, inadvertantly trained by the cult to exchange her "gift" for the offerings of food she stores the same way as a Shrike, or if she is in fact more sapient than a really old and really weird moose, how do we know she isn't suffering delusions of godhood after centuries of being regarded as one, as happens to many human cult leaders?

None of this, of course, offers any insight into how this being really, physically came to exist, without some cosmic power constructing this deranged physical form for itself to some long forgotten purpose, or another entity actually gestating something this abnormal by an actual, physical reproductive process, which only begs the question of whether that was a literal god, a thing people came to consider a god, or something altogether unheard of in fable or otherwise.

Director David Bruckner has said that this is a story about "masculinity in crisis," which is easy to see; it's a story in which one man's shame and insecurity over his own weakness finally bring him face to face with something so much more powerful and more terrifying, he is finally forced to find the courage to fight for his survival...but all at the terrible cost of his friend's lives, escaping with an empty, lonely victory. Even our monster's anatomy is scattered with symbolism from the obvious "torn crotch" we already highlighted to the staglike horns. The entire course of events, meanwile, play out like the classic "man vs. wild" thriller; a life or death struggle that could have just as easily been against a pack of wolves, a very pissed-off-bear or the elements themselves. Instead, this primal fear and awe of nature is amplified into something more nightmarish than even the pissiest bear you have ever dreamed of; something so ancient and fearsome that it may or may not be a literal demigod, challenging not only the courage of its human adversaries but their entire fundamental grasp of worldly logic and reason.