Guaranteed to severely divide audiences, Stanley Bennett Clay’s “Ritual” tries to be a kind of Greek tragedy in Malibu, with dramatic action dropping into sleepy lulls followed by sudden spurts of extreme emotion. Clay’s adaptation of his critically acclaimed 1980s-era play employs some interesting use of grand domestic space (the same Malibu pad used by Richard Rush for “Color of Night”) and explores some onscreen taboos that tend to play better for the cinema than the stage; on the other hand, pacing sometimes feels under water and an overwhelming sense of theatrically inspired manipulation emerges. Already a steady player on the fest circuit, pic will face extreme uphill fight in marketplace where indie distribs have turned conservative, fleeing from pics (Peter Greenaway’s being the exception) handling controversial sexual content explored here. Though shot three years ago, pic is also reportedly going through further fine-touch editing.
Additional built-in difficulty for pic is that responsible reviews, not out of Puritanical shyness, won’t reveal specifics of the highly-charged plot turn which raises major sexual hay and plays as a true startler for auds.
Yet Clay’s drama isn’t a mystery, intended as an anatomy of a black family that has realized the American Dream. This sentiment is laid on with disconcerting heavy-handedness at the start by proud patriarch and attorney Leron Becker (Clarence Williams III), who archly announces to his clan that they are “the perfect family … We’re built for success, we’re a special tribe.”
Speech establishes a stagy tone while sending out deafening signal that what we’re about to see is a far cry from perfection. An ill-judged voiceover by tippler wife Sylvia (Denise Nicholas) follows explaining family’s background, including a news still of Leron as a ’60s student activist that’s obviously taken from Williams’ days on “The Mod Squad.”
In hallowed theater tradition, catalyst is homecoming of son Mason (Shawn Michael Howard) from college; he is dropping out to focus, somewhat murkily, on “saving” the family. That Mason has a gun packed in his suitcase and absolutely does not get along with his father suggests a plot to kill him.
But as the family settles into its oddly formalized pattern of domestic behavior (nightly dinners in this house virtually demand coat and tie), a weirder element arises: With Sylvia practically ignoring domestic chores for the bottle, daughter Teresa (Angelle Brooks) plays efficient, kitchen-savvy homemaker and with her excessive fawning over father, actually resembles his substitute wife.
Mason, who similarly dotes over Sylvia, is gay, and, in one of a few effectively harsh face-offs between Williams and Howard, dad says that Mason’s sexuality is rooted in his being a momma’s boy. Clay doesn’t press this point, to pic’s benefit, and opts for a more unexpected direction.
Prime conflict emerges between Mason and Teresa, as a strange, almost psychic battle for supremacy in the family while mom and dad wing off for a Bahamas vacation weekend (paid and arranged for by Mason). Teresa, who turns out to be a bigger homophobe than her old man, suspects Mason of setting up a battle that indeed erupts in pic’s second half in a sequence combining hysteria, a few stretches of overacting by Brooks and character turns that will get auds buzzing and/or leaving the theater.
Finale places thesps in a curious bind. While underused actors like Williams and Nicholas rarely have these kinds of roles to make a statement, they’re often stuck here in stiffly staged scenes full of dialogue that can play well to the back row but sounds over-the-top in a movie context. Though psychologically derived from Greek tragedy archetypes, characters are more symbolic and one-dimensional than is credible in a contempo setting.
Still, Williams and Nicholas try to tone things down as much possible, putting on a pro exhibition of acting for the camera. Brooks feels like she’s trying much too hard for effect, while Howard has impossible assignment as a deeply confused young man who’s also confusingly conceived.
Lensing is fair, though there is excessive use of cut-rate dissolves. Filmmakers apologized for flawed state of soundtrack after Outfest screening, though amid outrageous dramatics, it was hardly noticeable.