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Revenge Of The Dominant Motif: Verbinski's The Ring
Nov 10, 2002 (Updated Nov 10, 2002)
Review by mfunk75
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Watts, some of the visuals, a surprisingly effective ending
Cons:Verbinski didn't do his roadwork: plot holes abound
The Bottom Line: While not strong enough to convert me into a horror film fan, it at least got me thinking for a couple of days afterwards.
"The Ring", in theory, should be the perfect horror movie for an audience member like me: it offers viscerally scary moments, where I can react with my emotions and my tense body; and it contains a plethora of opportunities for snide comments, where my cynical brain and snooty mouth can puncture holes in its faux-profound dialogue, in the sloppiness and clumsiness of its filmmaking, and in its gaping plot holes, each wide enough to drive Steven Spielberg's ego through [author's note: Speaking of Senior Spielbergo, pay close attention to the DreamWorks logo that plays just before the film. It's good to see a monolithic corporation willing to play with their brand identity a bit, for the sake of the product.]
Recommend this product?
Sporting a story so high-concept you'd be advised to take an airsickness pill before the opening credits, "The Ring" revolves around (pun intended) a mysterious videotape that, once watched, will kill the viewer in 7 days. I know a couple of Kevin Costner movies that do pretty much the same thing. After her niece becomes the tape's latest victim, investigative reporter Rachel Keller, in the worst example of cinematic judgment since the last half-hour of "A.I." (Oh Steven, what were you thinking?), decides to watch the tape herself. She enlists video geek Noah and her serious-as-a-heart-attack son Aidan to help her track down the tape's origins. The film borrows much of "Se7en's" narrative structure; only it isn't as successful as that film in giving equal weight to each day, stretching the film's action out over the week. Most of the action here takes place on the sixth and seventh day.
The inefficiency of the story makes a lot of sense, when you realize that storytelling is actually only of secondary importance to "The Ring's" main concern: beating its audience over the head with a dominant motif so prevalent they had no choice but to name the movie after it. Rings are everywhere: plenty of close-ups on characters' eyes, the mouth of a well, a circular mirror, ring patterns on the carpeting and the wallpaper, a prominent doorknob in the film's opening scene, ominous coffee cup stains (four words I dare you to find strung together anywhere else in the English language). The Internet Movie Database claims that even the burn marks on the upper right corner of the screen, meant to indicate when the movie reel is to be changed, are circular here where usually they're ovals. I noticed that too. So? I found this whole business endlessly tiresome. The ring is not a frightful image, in this film's hands, and the reliance on it as a visual reminder of the frights to come is just plain awkward. Frankly, "The Tape" might have made a better title, for it is more of a protagonist than "The Ring". The latter image is pounded into the audience's head so much that it loses all meaning (assuming it had some to begin with). In one supposedly significant scene, young Aidan, in a moment of Roy Neary-inspired obsession, is seen drawing endless kinetic pictures of rings, nearly breaking through the floor with the centrifugal force of his crayons. It'd be a frightening moment if the film gave its dominant motif anything more than superficial weight. Alas, it doesn't.
And didn't the Coen Bros. take enough of the stuffing out of this motif in "The Hudsucker Proxy"? I thought after that I thought it would surely be dead and buried.
Besides the use of a ho-hum central image, "The Ring" also indulges in many other common horror-film tropes that barely work: hard-crashing rain and perpetual grayness dominate the landscape (so much so that I kept forgetting I wasn't watching a black-and-white movie); prescient children, who are always one step ahead of their dim-witted adult counterparts; a spooky cabin in the woods; sudden shocks (punctuated, but here -- thankfully -- not over-punctuated, by the musical score), and the use of surreal imagery. This last bit, the domain of the central tape, might have been more effective if we, the audience, never get to see it. Maybe snippets would have done, as we get to focus on the reactions of the in-film viewers. But because the images on the tape act as a virtual roadmap for the rest of the story -- ham-handed detective clues, if you will -- it is essential that we see exactly what Rachel sees.
I guess much of the blame should be laid at the feet of director Gore Verbinski (although I enjoyed the added ironic thrill in the fact that this horror movie, very nearly sans blood and guts, was helmed by a man with named Gore). He, along with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who does some fine work lighting the film; he makes a gentle autumnal shot of a tree in the foreground and some galloping stallions in the background look serene and menacing), do fine work giving the film a distinctive visual style. But he spends so much time perfecting every nook and cranny of every shot that he forgets to make sure that the story is cohesive and realistic. Example: many scenes feature a character looking through old files (newspaper stories, medical records, etc.). Verbinski, in an effort to make sure the audience gets at least the salient information, sharply focuses his camera on the words he wants to be read. It might have been an effective technique, if he didn't have his actors also reading along with the audience
out loud. What could have been a mildly interesting shot becomes nothing more than an overly stylish follow-the-bouncing-ball.
Thankfully, Gore's choices aren't all bad. He did, after all, finally decide to cast Naomi Watts as his leading lady. Watts, as Rachel, starts out jaded, naïve, and seemingly without a grasp on how to act the character (come to think of it, this best describe her "Mulholland Drive" role as well; which makes me suspect it was all intentional), but gets more and more credible and more and more moving as she moves deeper and deeper into the story. And remember how I said the film felt like it was filmed in black and white? Well, it does. Except for those moments -- and they are often -- when Watts' blonde hair and piercing blue eyes and luscious red lips grace the screen. It certainly helps the film a lot that, to me at least, Naomi is in the running for the title MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD, while also being blessed with a down home reality, the clichéd girl-next-door quality, that other starlets lack.
Thankfully, Watts has charisma and skill to spare, for her maddening character might be the worst investigative journalist ever. With a 7-day deadline, it appears that, after about 3 1/2 days, all she's managed to do is make a copy of her most important piece of evidence (not to mention, inflict it's danger on the two people most close to her). And she's not the greatest of mothers either. For a movie essentially about botched maternal instincts, I think it only fitting, albeit quite disturbing, that Rachel neglects her precocious son for long periods of time. One such period nearly dooms the boy -- he is given an opportunity to watch the tape -- but Rachel is still more motivated by her journalistic instincts than her maternal ones to find the tape's secrets. An unexplored thematic point methinks. (Reminds me of Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Traffic", who lobbied to play the role pregnant, then allowed her character to seemingly abandoned her on-screen child, even after he is threatened by thugs)
David Dorfman plays young Aidan. It's a performance that only hints at the young boy's wisdom, preferring instead to make him come across as just weird. Dorman serves as more of a device than a character, as no modern horror film can get away with subverting the Osment-inspired template.
Martin Henderson, the other person in Rachel's life who is exposed to the tape, plays Noah. Despite the protestations of others, I found Henderson effective enough in the role, if not necessarily enjoyable. He gets the blasé of his early scenes just right, and manages the abrupt shift from cynic to true believer without much fanfare. Still, his participation here was somewhat distracting, as I kept seeing in him an older, scruffier, less charismatic Breckin Meyer.
You may think, if you've been reading carefully up to this point, that I had a less than favourable reaction to this movie. Au contraire. As I said off the top, sure it gave me ample opportunities to flex my contentious film reviewer muscles ("How did she know which tree to go to?" my movie-going companion asked at one ridiculous point. "The same way she knew which lighthouse to go to," I replied, "the one lit most spooky.") But despite that, the longer the movie went on, and the less sense it made, and the wider the plot holes became, the more I enjoyed it. How ironic. It set off a terribly fun battle between my head, which was constantly questioning the sloppiness of the filmmaking, and my body, which kept jumping in fright on cue. And the twist ending, a now-mandatory horror movie cliché, actually heightens the story, ties up some loose threads, and amplifies the sense of doom (or, impending doom).
After arriving home late from the theatre, I immediately went to sleep (note: it may seem dubious that a horror film preceded a good night's sleep, but that's more my doing than the film's fault). Upon waking up in the morning, I found myself still turning the film over in my mind, surprised by the obsession it brought up while still pondering its inconsistencies. Many of its plot points still failed to make sense. Hoping to use these failures as I wrote this review, I made a list of questions and observations, things that troubled me as I appraised the film in my mind. Many of these questions, after some extended pondering, actually began to make sense. The mythology of the film begins to form a sensible puzzle. Still, many others lay dormant, with no elucidation coming from the film, nor a self-discovered reason from within me, to justify their existence. Sure, the fact that the Doomed appear blurred in any photographic representation is a creepy image. And any time an epidemic of unexplained nosebleeds crops up it's cause for concern. But the multiple brainstormed explanations I came up for these plot points are as tenuous and uninteresting to me as they would be to you. I guess creepy for creepy's sake is enough. Especially for a film like "The Ring", which I didn't really like, but I sure enjoyed.
[The aforementioned Roy Neary, in case you were wondering, didn't draw rings. He carved sculptures of the Devil's Mountain into his mashed potatoes. Senior Spielbergo, if he found out about your ignorance, would be aghast!]
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