Z To A: The Ring (2002)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: It begins as just another urban legend- the whispered tale of a nightmarish videotape that causes anyone who watches it to die seven days later. But when four teenagers all meet with mysterious deaths exactly one week after watching just such a tape, investigative reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) tracks down the video… and watches it. Now, the legend is coming true, the clock is ticking and Rachel has just seven days to unravel the mystery of The Ring.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Out of all the films reviewed for Z To A, I’m pretty sure The Ring has made the most money. It’s also a part of the pop culture lexicon, with spoilers that have become as moot as the end of The Sixth Sense (1999). Just about everyone knows the plot, its memorable moments and why they loved or hated it.

When you break it down The Ring is rather straight-forward. In the “blockbuster” sense it’s the opposite of epic. It’s small. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Gore Verbinski directed it, because since then he has become known for spectacle rather than story. In this case his work hits the mark and executes well- everything and everyone has a purpose. The plot has an urgency and quickness and my God… watching it again reminded me just how creepy and unsettling it is.

Thing is it’s been ten years, and a lot has changed since then. There is a ton of dying technology in this film: 1-hour photo development, tube televisions, land lines, videotapes, even going to the library instead of using Google. However, that is all a part of how The Ring‘s story functions. It loses something when you think of, say, a DVD that kills people.

Besides, it doesn’t really matter. Everything else about The Ring continues to hold up and serve its purpose, which is to confound and scare the audience. The performances are solid (although David Dorfman could have dialed down the creepy), the images are striking and the score is sparse and chilling as ever (seriously, how raw can a cello solo be?). When it comes to the suspense/horror genre, it gets the job done.

Now personally I’m not a fan of horror movies. The Ring is the closest thing I have to owning one. But it’s not the scares that prompted me to buy it. There’s a cleverness to it that I appreciate because it messes with audience expectations, particularly what we’re used to seeing and what we choose to ignore.

It’s easy to forget that a good chunk of the film is focused on Anna Morgan (Shannon Cochran), whose image recurs on the cursed videotape. It’s assumed she may be behind it all. By the time Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase) becomes part of the picture, we don’t know whether she’s alive or dead. Think about it. Does anyone remember the possibility of her in a mental hospital and being in her thirties? The audience doesn’t know how she figures into things until the final act.

The way the audience views Samara is not influenced by facts, but by the way Rachel Keller perceives her, and her point of view is strongly influenced by being a mother. Also, the order in which she discovers the facts paints Samara as a misunderstood, possibly abused little girl. There are signs along the way that something isn’t right, but it’s convenient to ignore them. We aren’t sure who is telling the truth, so it’s easy to side with what the protagonist believes.

When Rachel thinks she has figured all of this out the film provides the audience with another trope- namely, the way a lot of movies end. She and ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson) sit wrapped in shock blankets while the police attend to the scene on Shelter Mountain. The mystery is solved. She and Noah may be reconciling. The score lightens. Rachel returns home to her son, Aidan (Dorfman) and it seems all is well. As far as the experienced moviegoer is concerned, the film might as well be over.

And then we feel like idiots.

That is where the film’s stroke of genius lies, playing with our sympathies for a child, any child. And that’s what makes The Ring‘s ending such a kick in the pants. It has been imitated, parodied and may have lost its edge, but still:

I’m sorry. Does this image make you uncomfortable?

As a society we feel protective and vulnerable when it comes to our children. That vulnerability is central to The Ring‘s plot and how it influences the way we think and feel. There is an emphasis on parent-child relationships and how they can be abusive and destructive, as well as a driving force to do good and protect what we love.

All of this is channeled through Watts’ performance as Keller. At the time Watts had gotten critical notice for her role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). The Ring made her a bankable star. She managed to create a multi-faceted character with the limited material she was given, portraying Rachel as driven, stubborn and somewhat immature but determined to do the right thing. You’d expect things to work out for her, but the truth is they don’t.

The conclusion of the film is open-ended and unpleasant (yet not nearly as unpleasant as the Japanese novel series its based on). I still find it incredibly effective. We have no idea what is going to happen or how the copies of the videotape will be stopped, so in a way the film has no ending at all.

Perhaps The Ring will find its way to new audiences that aren’t spoiled. Nowadays its title alone is shorthand for “girl comes out of television; murders the shit out of you.” It could be another ten years, but by then it might be as scary as a ghost coming out of Nickelodeon.

Or not.

I’m hoping not.

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