Urban legends work like viruses, passed on from one individual to another. At the beginning of The Ring, Becca (Rachael Bella) shares such a story with her friend Katie (Amber Tamblyn). There’s a videotape that kills you. You watch it and seven days later, you die. Katie’s eyes go wide: she and her boyfriend saw that tape last weekend, exactly a week ago. Scant minutes later, after some scary shenanigans concerning a tv that keeps turning itself on, Katie’s dead.
Enter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a dedicated reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, so sure of her position that she threatens to poke her editor’s eyes out if he touches her prose. This, on her cell, loudly, as she’s just outside her young son Aidan’s (David Dorfman) classroom (she’s late to pick him up from school, as usual). The teacher (Sandra Thigpen) looks worried; the boy, who happens to be dead Katie’s cousin, has been drawing gruesome pictures of corpses — weeks before the bizarre death. Could be that he’s influenced by his mother’s colorful turns of phrase, but maybe there’s something else going on.
In bed that night, Aidan tells Rachel, “We don’t have enough time.” She apologizes for working so much, promises to do better, but no, that’s not what he means. Katie told him this, just before she died, apparently having come to a profound realization. Now he has Rachel’s attention. Her curiosity is piqued when her sister, grieving over her daughter’s death and desperate to know what happened, sends her on a mission: “You could find out, it’s what you do, isn’t it? Ask questions?” Rachel lights a cigarette and starts interrogating Katie’s friends, gathered outside at the wake.
She’ll find the tape, she’ll watch it (haunting black-and-white images: a woman in a mirror, a lighthouse, a tree, a little girl, a well, an eyeball, etc.), she’ll get a phone call, a little voice saying only, “Seven days.”
Based on Hideo Nakate’s 1998 cult favorite, Ringu, in turn based on Kôji Suzuki’s novel, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is relentlessly disquieting and incoherent, and sometimes trite in ways it doesn’t need to be. For all its elegant spookiness, the film relies on some familiar concepts: families are sacred units, men need to be responsible, and gifted/abused little girls will have their revenge from beyond the grave.
Rachel believes the phone call, that she has only 7 days to live, and sets out to decipher the tape’s seemingly disconnected images. First, she shows it to her ex-boyfriend, Noah (Martin Henderson), which, considering that she believes she’s going to die, seems particularly vengeful (the rupture in their relationship is never explained, save for her brief observation that he thinks she’s obsessive and she thinks he’s immature). Noah doesn’t get the danger. A video producer or director or something, he sees the tape as a material, not spiritual or metaphorical, object, and dismisses her fears. Such skepticism is never a good thing in a horror movie. You have to be willing to see what’s in front of you, not what you know.
Rachel’s search — for self, for salvation, for — takes her to various remote places around Seattle, where constant rain surely adds to your sense that she’s mucking around where she shouldn’t be. But she asks questions, it’s what she does. The answers, increasingly cryptic, involve the woman in the mirror, Anna Morgan (Shannon Cochran), who lives on an island; her beloved horses, who went insane from some “virus,” and drowned themselves by jumping off the island; her crotchety husband Richard (Brian Cox), still maintaining the stable but without the horses; and their missing daughter Samara (Daveigh Chase), whose hair hangs down over her face in all available images, providing inspiration for the seemingly uncontrollable urge to scratch over girls’ faces (in magazines, photographs, drawings) that overtakes anyone who’s seen the tape.
For all its seeming arbitrariness, the videotape does, in the end, lead Rachel on her very own quest to find what’s important to her, in particular, how she sees herself as a mother (especially once Aidan gets a look at the tape, which she’s left within his reach for some unknown reason). That doesn’t stop Aidan from looking more like a plot device than a character in his own right (his drawings provide important clues to the mystery, he has access to the wronged girl’s rage and, ostensibly, some of the less obvious clues Rachel seeks. Unfortunately, he or Rachel feel a need to speak his insights out loud, so that the film starts to seem like it’s spelling out each insidious clue, step by step, not trusting you to make connections yourself (this overstatement is most annoying when Rachel starts reading aloud during her library and internet excavations, as the words appear in close up on screen: keep up!).
Among Rachel’s several curious discoveries is the odd trajectory of Anna’s experience: “You could almost draw a line through her life,” Rachel muses, as she and Noah (who has finally caught on and agreed to help). On one side, Anna is “happy and sheltered,” with “light and pride” in her face; on the other, she’s brooding, miserable, afraid — lightless. Gee, just what it’s like, being a mom: Rachel’s been wondering just when her life turned its corner, as well.
Looking for an explanation, Rachel tracks down Samara’s doctor, Dr. Grasnick (Jane Alexander), who has a son of her own, of whom she is especially protective, like, you know, something’s happened to him and she has good reason. The little Morgan girl, she recalls — with one of those haunted looks that such mysterious information sources tend to get in movies like this — was “seeing things, horrible things, like they’d been burned into her brain.” Hmm. And in one of Rachel’s visions, the girl has grasped her arm and left a burn mark… “Was there anything wrong with her?” Rachel wants to know. The doctor gets that look again: “Some people have limits.”
The viewer versed in horror will likely forgive the film’s lack of explanation for its bizarre phenomena, including cryptic dialogue and non-closure. That viewer will also recognize Rachel’s dilemma, as her grappling with the fears, joys, and responsibilities of motherhood (even when the child is a monster). The Ring doesn’t exactly revise the formula and it gives its working mother a very hard time. But its resolution, such as it is, raises dreadful questions about maternal devotion and protectiveness, the extremes to which you might go, in order to preserve your own child’s welfare before anyone else’s. These are good questions, not easy to ask, and plainly, impossible to answer.