The Devlin family lives on a remote farm in Australia, left alone to live an existence based upon the most important thing in their lives: God.
But when their eldest daughter disappears, a local cop’s arrival ruptures their carefully isolated world. His investigation unearths disturbing aspects of the family, but the truth is much darker than anyone imagines.
Writer-director Robert Linsley’s powerful and disturbing drama focuses its meticulous, precise sense of craft and storytelling on the nature of religious fanaticism, and its insidious influence on the most intimate and personal aspects of a family and human being.
It begins with a remarkable sense of economy and mystery, with little dialogue and explicit information given by the pared-down writing to guide the viewers. Yet the striking images — washed out in color, sweeping in motion yet precise and almost rigid in their sense of composition — are rich with meaning and implication. This family’s world is ordered by its adherence to religion, at the cost of love, connection and intimacy. In the place of these elements are pain, punishment, isolation and the sacrifice of anything resembling familial affection in service of a punitive God.
The arrival of the police detective moves the story forward, and his search for answers moves us deeper into this strange, ominous world. As the film’s beacon of normality, viewers can see that what he uncovers is disturbing and horrific, and distinctly disordered.
The film’s range of performances also reflect this: as the detective, actor Sam O’Dell has the facile and ease of a modern world, but his opposing counterparts — led by actors Gary Sweet and Alison Whyte as the Devlin parents — seem to exist in another old-fashioned, strangely constrained story entirely. The chasm between the styles works well here, especially as the forces that each side represents clash against one another.
As the narrative momentum moves forward, “Ritual” gains in speed and suspense, working its way into a finely wrought ending sequence worthy of thriller status. There’s even a subtle yet stunning reveal that may prompt viewers to re-watch, searching for clues that the elegantly sculpted writing carefully tucked away in plain sight.
But even as it picks up in tension, the film’s richly conceived world and atmosphere guarantees that the film’s central concerns and questions are never lost. What is the role of religious belief, and what kind of influence does it wield on human lives, especially when those lives are stripped bare of anything else? The answers teased at here are disturbing, but are in perfect alignment with the film’s considerable aesthetics — and resulting in a remarkable unity of thought, emotion and atmosphere that makes for intelligent, compelling storytelling.