“Thees place no good!” Wouldn’t you know it, when a group of pretty, white post-adolescents hear this caution from a Mexican cab driver, they only smirk and sigh. Constitutionally unable to heed warnings or respect locals, the tourists push on. One of the boys hands the driver $20, and, as he puts it, “Problem solved.”
You, on the other hand, have seen this movie before. And so you know that when the kids in The Ruins head off to a Mayan temple that’s “off the beaten path,” they’re headed straight for trouble. Deep trouble, so to speak, as the film has a few minutes earlier opened with the obligatory screaming white girl in a dark place. “Someone help me!” she calls out, scrunched up in some kind of cavey-looking hole, just before she’s whisked off screen with a thump and rustling sounds.
Now four Americans are headed straight toward that creepy hole in the jungle, invited by a German named Mathias (Joe Anderson) and his just-met Greek buddy Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas). Mathias promises that the ruins will be accessible, as his brother is there on a “dig” with his new girlfriend. Because they’ve met the day before by the hotel pool and have shared an evening of margaritas and beers, the Americans say, “Sure!” And because Dmitri speaks only Greek and has about a minute and a half of screen time prior to their arrival at the temple, you know he’ll be the first to be killed, and a sensationally graphic death it is too. Med school student Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) is aptly horrified by the bloody sight, as is his girlfriend Amy (Jena Malone).
As they wonder just what to do next, surrounded by a group of dark-skinned locals armed with arrows and guns, they look over at their friends, Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore), equally distraught. The only option — given the language barrier — is to scamper up the steps of the temple, then peer over the top to make sure that their erstwhile hiking partner is indeed still dead, his arms awkwardly arrayed and head splatted all over the dirt below. And then again, to ensure that you appreciate the corpse’s graceless, grim finality. Got it.
For the rest of The Ruins, the less than hardy group argue, cry, and cringe a lot, trying to think their way out of their decidedly dicey position. Mathias insists that they seek out his brother when they hear what sounds like his cell phone ringing from within the site whose opening they find atop the temple. Their efforts follow a usual course, whereby each bad decision is followed by another. When one is injured severely early on, the four survivors do their best to keep his pasty face and broken body away from them, even as he moans manfully and appears in the foreground or background of repeated group discussions. It’s only a matter of time before they realize they’re battling not just scary natives, but rather, scary natives who worship and fear a monstrous entity — namely, flesh-eating and body-invading vines whose home base is the very temple where the tourists appear set for “sacrifice.” Alas, this means there will be no Turistas-style explanatory speech by an angry Mexican regarding the rich and selfish tourists. Instead, those tourists will grapple with their imminent demises not heroically, but crudely and not a little sadly.
Jeff, being an aspiring doctor, knows a little too much about the human body for everyone else’s own good. So, he diagnoses injuries, decides on “treatments” (“Keep his legs clean,” he says of the comrade with a broken back and gashed and broken legs, to avoid fatal infection). “This doesn’t happen,” Jeff blusters, “Four Americans on vacation don’t just disappear.” He makes plans premised on waiting for help to arrive: he rations water and food, insisting that they will be rescued if only they wait; after all, Dimitri’s drunken buddies will surely notice he has not returned in time for their flight out. “The police, our parents, the Greeks,” Jeff says, “Someone is going to find us. We just have to be alive when they do.” Never mind that they barely found the site themselves, as the path was hidden by brush and watched over by spooky, silent Mexican children.
Eric insists this is a bad plan, that he’d rather try to send one of their number for help, while the others distract their solemn, gun-toting guards. But the group is inclined, for no clear reason, to do what Jeff says. This even when he decided that the injured party has become infected and they will need to cut off his legs to save his life. And this even when their only implements for doing so are a rock (to break the legs), a “fucking hunting knife,” as Eric colorfully inflects it, and tequila, to sanitize the blade and anesthetize the patient. When they put the butchery to a vote (“Raise your hands if you want to cut off his legs!” blurts Eric), Amy goes along because, she says, Jeff is “in med school.”
The film parallels the disintegrations of the couples’ relationships with their turns to brutality. This is rendered viscerally, via gruesome sound effects and very gooey-looking dismemberments and incisions. When one girl believes the vines to be inside her body, having entered through a cut while she slept at night, she begs Jeff to cut them out. Though he agrees to a couple of efforts, horrified as he pulls out the long, green, trembling cables, at last he has to stop. “There’s no more cutting,” he says flatly, “We can’t keep cutting.”
In this, the film achieves something like a metaphor, as the tourists’ fears have infected their very beings, vine-like, and their decisions are increasingly ineffective precisely because they are based on fear and ignorance. They can’t know what’s coming next, they can’t plan, they can’t imagine a good choice. And so they make up likelihoods, lapse into distrust and betrayal, and begin to fear each other. While this anxiety may or may not be unfounded, it’s devastating. Unfortunately, The Ruins doesn’t dig much into that effect.