Finally got around to watching Mickey Keating’s Ritual last night – have a look at my reviews of his other movies (Carnage Park, Darling, Pod) if the mood grabs you. If you do, you’ll find I’m mostly a fan of his work – I’m appreciative of how prolific he is too. In terms of movie production, the only person I can think of who is that busy is Clint Eastwood. It took me a while to find this movie, and although I generally avoid reading other people’s reviews, I was unlucky enough to stumble across a number of negative ratings on the web. I’m not exactly sure why.
Like Keating’s other work, Ritual is low budget, and being as it’s earlier than the others, this one is likely the smallest budget of the lot. I estimate between 30K and 50K, but it could be less. Not to regurgitate the meat of other reviews of mine, but Keating’s work turned me into a fan of indie horror, but I’m not so indiscriminate that I’ll appreciate something just because it’s indie horror (here’s where I plug my reviews for Black Mountain Side, and Joe Begos’ The Mind’s Eye), because a movie is still a movie. Regardless of the budget, it needs to tell a compelling story, with compelling characters. Sure, there needs to be decent acting, or else even a well-written script is going to sound like a table-read, and there needs to be a score that’s at least competent. Keating is a low budget moviemaker who came from Glass Eye Pix, if I recall correctly, so he was probably able to hit the ground running a bit easier than some of his peers, because there’s not a ton of his work I can get too worked up about, critically. I’ve yet to see any of his work that doesn’t feature more than competent acting, and his collaboration with composer Giona Ostinelli reminds me of the pairing of David Cronenberg and Howard Shore. Ostinelli is sure to become a high profile composer, based on his work in Keating’s movies. Keating’s directorial style is also really good, and he clearly knows his way around blocking and framing. I say really good because it doesn’t get in the way of the work. When you watch a movie like The Neon Demon, you’re acutely aware of the style of the moviemaker – this isn’t a criticism, by the way. I happen to like Nicolas Winding Refn’s style, even if the whole movies he makes doesn’t float my boat. Keating is an unobtrusive director, feels like he has an actor’s instinct and is able to steer the strengths of his cast, rather than just let them read lines.
Sounds like I’m going to extoll the virtues of how great Ritual is, but only kinda-sorta. To be sure, I enjoyed the movie a lot more than some other people did, but it definitely has its flaws, one of which is common to both Keating’s writing and the wider world of indie moviemaking. Ritual feels like someone finding his feet and not entirely sure which direction to go in, which is perfectly normal for one of the first movies in someone’s career, but it’s definitely apparent in a number of scenes, especially the disconnected opening which seems like a clear nod to David Lynch. The movie is about an estranged husband and wife in fear for their lives, and the opening shows how they met. It’s an idealized version of a meeting, and their characters in this sequence don’t match their depiction in the rest of the movie. I guess I can see why Keating did what he did, but it’s off kilter both thematically and tonally with the rest of the piece and it doesn’t really work. Similarly, there are choppy climactic scenes before the end credit roll that unreel in non-linear fashion, unlike the rest of the movie. Here I wasn’t so sure what Keating intended, and this didn’t really work for me either. I did, however, really enjoy the continuation of the story through the credit roll. It’s a pretty bold move, considering that the scenes don’t represent the kind of credit sequences of a Marvel movie, where it’s good to see them, but if you miss them, no biggie. Here, these snippets of story actually do matter. It does edge toward pretension in the last few seconds, but Keating didn’t become a pretentious moviemaker after Ritual, so again, just a new director finding his feet.
The acting is pretty good, and overall, I did feel a kind an attempt to create a Blue Velvet kind of dynamic with the story, but it isn’t obvious, and Keating doesn’t really ape Lynch, so no harm no foul. Dean Cates is a guy who could play a solid recurring TV role, for sure, and Lisa Marie Summerscales holds her own, but it could be her one big role, and Keating gets the best out of them.
The story is pretty tight, and smartly written in terms of being budget-conscious. Unlike Black Mountain Side and The Mind’s Eye, which should have paid more attention to budget in the script development phase, Keating has a good mind for budget and writes and shoots economically, but not skimpily. Indie moviemaking is all about the intersection of premise, ambition, and budget, and Keating nails down all three.
But the movie isn’t without its flaws. While the story is an effective thriller, there are dialogue heavy scenes that go on too long, past the point where all the information we need to get out of a scene has already been out – a propensity that carries forward to Keating’s other work. I get that when you have no budget, dialogue is your friend, because it’s free, but too much is still too much. Also, in Ritual there’s a strange habit of not cutting immediately to the active element in the scene. An early example being that once Cates arrives at the motel, the room has a dead body in it, in a very obvious place. We can see Cate’s reaction, but there’s no immediate jump cut to the body. Withholding the image for a few more lines of dialogue doesn’t make any sense, especially since those lines are not particularly revealing of anything, nor is the corpse any kind of unique or shocking image.
Flaws aside, I enjoyed it, not just because I was forgiving of Keating’s freshman faux pas, but because even with them, Ritual is a decent enough little movie that tries hard to punch above its weight, and pretty much succeeds.