Ritual should be a tense affair. It should be a tightly coiled thing of urgency and despair. Unfortunately, the painfully slow pacing of the first half prevents the film from building any steam. When the climax arrives and the time comes for the film to really let loose, it rushes through the finish line leaving us high and dry. It's almost as if writer / director Mickey Keating decided to make a film that dwells upon all the scenes that take place between the bits that would normally be in a thriller.
Tom (Dean Cates) and Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) used to be in love. They met on a beach. He thought she was fetching. She liked that he thought she was fetching. But that's in the past. Now they're estranged and she's standing over a stranger's body in a seedy motel room with blood on her hands. When she frantically calls Tom to show up and save the day, he arrives at the motel not knowing the hell he's about to walk into. She says the guy was abusive and that his death was purely accidental. Tom doesn't care about the why of it all. He simply wants to know what to do about it now that she's made him an accessory to murder.
They unearth a VHS tape which suggests that the dead stranger was about to make Lovely the centerpiece of a satanic ritual with his cult buddies. Tom and Lovely decide to scram before the cult members get there but soon have to turn back when Tom realizes that he forgot an incriminating bit of evidence in the room. Will they run into the cult members when they get back to the motel? Will the cult take kindly to the fact that the sacrificial lamb du jour took out one of their brothers? Will they try to go through with the ritual anyway? What do you think?
As I was watching Ritual, all I could think was "I liked this a lot better when it was called Vacancy." Perhaps the couple under siege in a motel scenario makes for an easy comparison but the fact remains that in that film Nimrod Antal took a spare setting and milked it for all it was worth. Keating has many of the same building blocks at his disposal but never manages to fashion anything truly compelling out of them. I realize that Keating was likely operating with a significantly smaller budget but that doesn't explain why the whole film just feels so leaden. The whole setup with Tom and Lovely just goes in circles without achieving much character development or generating any suspense. I'm guessing that Keating is going for a slow-burn atmospheric approach but the execution of those early scenes just doesn't work for me.
It isn't until the VHS tape surfaces that the film starts to build any momentum. When Tom and Lovely made their escape, I foolishly expected that the film would strike out into new terrain. My hopes were quickly dashed when a plot contrivance quickly returned them to the motel. I won't spoil the climax of the film but I will say that it somehow manages to feel both abrupt and unnecessarily drawn out. Keating makes some interesting choices during the climax that speak to greater directorial ambition. Unfortunately they also undercut the momentum and tone that a film like this desperately needs. There is a lengthy foot chase that is both eerily beautiful and distractingly sluggish. This is followed by a conversation in a car that is darkly funny and yet completely out of place.
I can't deny that there is a certain quirk to Keating's work. I suspect he would work wonders with a pitch black comedy but here his instincts seem to go against the brutish energy that this film deserves. He is so fixated on building atmosphere and indulging his directorial flourishes that he forgets to include any sort of meaningful payoff. It's a shame too because a tighter focus on pacing and a more developed second half could have turned this film around.