The Ring (2002)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

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The Ring is much more of a detective story than a true horror film.  Sure, I found particular moments a little terrifying, but most of the horror comes from the eerie atmosphere and a sense of dread that hangs over the entire movie.

When a young girl dies in the cold open after watching a mysterious VHS tape, her aunt, Rachel (Naomi Watts), investigates the legend of this supposedly deadly tape.  She watches the video, receives a call telling her she has seven days to live and then sets out to figure out what the hell is going on.

The Ring is about as 2002 as it gets.  Except for maybe those skater shoes with wheels, nothing really defined that year as much as this movie.  It was one of a handful of movies parodied in Scary Movie 3, and the film kicked off a trend of American remakes of Japanese horror films.  Part of the movie’s lasting legacy (is it lasting?) might have to do with the death of VHS only a couple years after the film’s release.  The movie’s plot hinges on a technology that now immediately dates the movie.  As this was released you had the rise of DVDs, and now even that technology (as well as Blu Ray) feels quite outdated.  Everything is streaming these days, and The Ring makes VHS tape feel as aesthetically pleasing as a vinyl record or film photography.

The mystery central to the plot is appealing, but the more we learn about the video tape, the more the spell is broken.  This is the case with many horror films.  The less we know the better, but The Ring is about someone trying to break this all down.  Rachel’s interest in studying the tape is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) in which a photographer believes he may have photographed a murder and ‘blows up’ the image to study the picture.  He stares at the image for so long that it seems to lose all meaning, at least to the viewer, but the character sees something we don’t.

Rachel’s obsession with the printed image is much more immediate considering she has a pretty good idea the tape’s deadly curse is very real.  The plot mechanics make her desperation much more understandable and therefore she becomes a little less interesting, as if her characterization is only as expansive as the film’s limits let it be.  The plot fuels this movie, even if Rachel’s actions dictate the pace.

There is a moment of emotional catharsis with about twenty minutes left in the film, and I’d say it doesn’t really work because up until that point we don’t have much interest in Rachel or the dead girl behind the deadly curse.  What hooks us in is the premise and the spectacle of a rotten corpse crawling out of your TV set.  The interesting angle here, the subtext I suppose, is that our televisions are killing us, the manifestation of a concern held by parents everywhere for their young children.

The Ring has all of this, but it takes its time and deals with a much more conventional detective story, one that could exist in any number of stories but instead lays waste to much of this movie’s appeal.  That being said the final fifteen minutes are pretty great, but as it is I felt like the middle forty or so minutes were empty space.  This is a somewhat lackadaisical story bookended by two thrilling sequences.

That detective story is fueled by Rachel’s obsession, and as I mentioned it mirrors the obsession of the character in Blow-Up.  But again, that character study works because we can’t really comprehend the photographer’s sudden fascination with the photographs.  He’s a self-centered, egocentric dude who suddenly goes to great lengths to investigate something that has nothing to do with him.  The textual dramatic question is whether or not someone committed a murder, but underneath that we wonder what drives the photographer personally.  The final moments of the film, involving a surreal tennis match, focus on what might be going on inside his mind.

The Ring might have a similar angle were we to not understand Rachel’s motivations.  Instead her motivations are crystal clear and incredibly rote.  The victim was her niece, and her sister asks her to look into this.  That’s all she needs to go on.  And yeah, maybe that should be enough, but the film never works to establish any kind of meaningful connection between Rachel and her deceased niece.  They just happen to be related, but Rachel never wastes any thought on the dead girl.

The emotional crux of the film concerns Rachel’s worry for her son, Aidan (David Dorfman).  Now, Aidan was the one who had a relationship with his cousin, and he’s the more fascinating character in all of this.  Even still, the film mostly wastes his character, using him more as the personification of doom rather than as a unique character.

Aidan predicted his cousin’s death.  Three days after her death, his teacher shows Rachel the drawings he made.  Considering she just died, his demented drawings make a lot of sense, and Rachel shrugs this off to the teacher, saying it’s all understandable.  At the end of the scene the teacher will tell her that Aidan made these drawings the week before.  After a moment of surprise, Rachel waves away the teacher’s worry.  Her quickness to rationalize the kid’s obviously fragile state of mind might be the most disturbing part of the film.  She knows where it comes from, but she doesn’t seem to consider the real ramifications of the girl’s death on her 9 or so year old son.

And you know what, that would make a more interesting angle into the film.  Maybe Rachel’s ambivalence towards her niece’s death is more real than I remember.  Maybe she really is hooked on the mystery like someone watching a Dateline murder investigation.  She is obsessed out of morbid curiosity rather than empathy.

Maybe that’s the case, but maybe I’m giving the film too much credit.  It’s hard to remember.

Aidan is the more interesting character, but he’s only there to kickstart the story and foreshadow the mystical elements of the plot.  He’s basically a puppet for the true evil, like he’s tuned into the horror that the adults can’t see.  And damn, that’s really a continuing theme in horror movies, isn’t it?  At least it’s certainly the case in The Shining, It and Cujo (all Stephen King stories).  The kid can sense a certain kind of doom that the adults don’t fully understand until it faces them head on.

Anyways, The Ring is a good watch because of the thrills it provides at the beginning and end of the film.  The middle works well enough because you always sense something is coming around the corner.  That’s mostly thanks to the sense of dread hanging over the story and the Matrix-inspired cinematography.  The world is shown through stark contrast and a swampy green color palette, letting us know something’s not quite right.

So The Ring keeps you on your toes, and I guess it’s only in retrospect that you realize the middle hour was actually quite dull.  This is a story full of promise that only delivers on part of it, and considering I was nervous for much of the film, I suppose it worked.

Up Next: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), Away We Go [Script Only], Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

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