Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).
From the slapstick comedy Mouse Hunt to the crime caper The Mexican (2001) and now the horror film The Ring, the story of the early part of Gore Verbinski’s directing career has been one of stylistic experimentation across several of the most important genres in the history of American cinema, each with a rich past and its own cinematic language established over the last century-plus. Such history always surrounds us in a Verbinski film in one way or another, from the dilapidated locales of both previous features to the ancient lore of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy that followed The Ring, to the wrecked marriage and parent-child relationships of The Weather Man, characters are often haunted or even oppressed by familial legacies, their own fears and weaknesses manifested in actual curses, or a dark past; nearing the 20th anniversary of its release, The Ring stands for us today as a relic of its time, distilling modern concerns like the ever-more-rapid advance of technology and age-old questions such as what it truly means to be a parent (another favored theme in Verbinski’s work) into an improbably perfect metaphor: the story of a killer videotape.
Remaking a 1998 Japanese film of the same title, usually transliterated as Ringu, from director Hideo Nakata (who also directed the original Dark Water  and both the Japanese  and English  versions of The Ring 2), The Ring broke new ground in the horror genre, not to mention box office records, on both sides of the Pacific. The opening scene of Verbinski’s version runs almost shot-for-shot with its Japanese counterpart, with the addition of a brief speech by Katie (Amber Tamblyn, of Joan of Arcadia fame), the tape’s first victim, in which she explains how over-the-air TV signals and other “electro-rays” are scrambling our brains. Concerns about technology and its potentially-insalubrious influence on modern life are present from the outset in The Ring, but are generally confined to subtext for the rest of the film.
After Katie dies mysteriously, her aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts) takes an interest in the urban legend of a killer videotape in her capacity as an investigative reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rachel’s son Aidan, whom she apparently adopted straight from Children of the Corn, evinces some sort of supernatural link to the tape and its curse, as in one early scene his concerned teacher shows Rachel pictures he drew of Katie buried in the ground a week before her actual death. Soon after, he relates to Rachel his feeling that we never have enough time before we die, which makes it clear from the outset that The Ring, like all of Verbinski’s work, is deeply concerned with how we spend our short lives, and how we will be remembered after we’re gone. His psychic connection to the tape becomes the driving force of Rachel’s investigation, which sees her becoming less and less concerned for her own safety as she realizes she needs to save the boy as well.
When Rachel brings her ex (and Aidan’s father) Noah into the investigation we are introduced to a partial caricature of Verbinski himself: a punk rocker-turned-filmmaker whose loft apartment is scattered with video equipment and adorned with band stickers, including one from L.A. legends Bad Religion for whom Verbinski directed four music videos in the early ’90s. Meta-referential personal touches like this litter Verbinski’s filmography and point to the fact that, within the confines of generally mainstream work, he is talented enough as a director to bring a sense of stylistic vivacity, ingenuity, and personality to every project.
With Noah’s help, Rachel continues her investigation. Utilizing the specialist video editing equipment at the newspaper offices, she discovers images on the tape that lead her to the home of Anna Morgan, a horse breeder on a (fictional) remote island in Seattle’s Elliott Bay who had committed suicide some years before after several of her animals had done the same. Rachel’s ferry ride out to the island perfectly encapsulates the appeal of The Ring and much of Verbinski’s work overall, as extraordinarily beautiful shots of the Bay in classic overcast Seattle weather contrast sharply with a horrifying incident in which a horse breaks free from its trailer and hurls itself from the ferry, with a slowly-spreading pool of red in the boat’s wake announcing the animal’s grisly fate. Arriving on the island, Rachel finds Anna’s husband Richard, played to cantankerous perfection by Brian Cox (most famous at the present moment for his role in HBO’s Succession). Bitter and isolated, he responds to Rachel’s probing questions with curt suspicion and even denies the existence of Samara, his adopted daughter. The girl is soon revealed to be not only very real but the true monster of the story: with the power to psychically implant images into the minds of people and animals alike, she tormented her adoptive mother’s beloved horses to suicide, jealous of the affection Anna lavished on the beasts. Further torture of her surviving parents then led Anna to kill both Samara and herself.
The film’s technological synecdoche of a cursed video tape can here be pushed to its logical conclusion in the way it speaks on art as a whole. Taking Samara as the “artist” expressing her inner feelings in the physical form of the killer videotape and the Morgan household as the society/culture that produced her, it’s possible to interpret The Ring as a nightmarish vision of the negative impact art can have on an uncaring society when the artist feels neglected and abandoned, their uniqueness un-nurtured and their personal growth stunted. The way new technologies allow such malformed sensibilities to spread more easily, the film appears to say, can infect the world just as the tape’s curse is passed from one person to the next, leaving bodies and souls alike grotesquely mangled.
The commentary on technology and culture early on in the film coupled with its treatment of Samara as a character may point to or suggest this thread, but it is to Verbinski’s great credit as a storyteller and film craftsman that he does not take it up. His previous film, The Mexican, suffered greatly from a loss of focus as it got bogged down in hackneyed, repetitive discussions of the idea that when two people love each other, they can bear any hardship; The Ring allows no time for such philosophical digressions, and they are nowhere near Verbinski’s story-driven purview.
When Rachel visits the only doctor on the island, she learns that the Morgans were desperate for a child (after many miscarriages, as Noah discovers while snooping in Anna’s medical records) and loved Samara dearly, right up until it became clear that killing her was the only way to stop her from psychically torturing them. The doctor somewhat obliquely informs Rachel that Samara was simply evil, claiming the girl brought disease and even crop failure to the island long before the incident with the horses. Such details conjure up associations with classic horror films like Nosferatu (1922) and Halloween (1978), and it is to these less philosophical models that Verbinski adheres for most of the remaining 40-ish minutes of The Ring. After a further suicide, this time of Richard Morgan, Rachel and Noah follow a series of clues that leads them to a well under the floorboards of a rural inn, the site of Samara’s death at the hands of her mother.
The scene that takes place at the inn represents one of the most significant changes from the Japanese original. In that earlier version, it is the character analogous to Noah, not Rachel, who enters the well seeking to liberate the spirit of the Samara character from her watery grave. Up to that point, he has been shown to have some sort of psychic connection to the girl’s spirit, just as Rachel’s son Aiden does in Verbinski’s version, which makes him the obvious choice to perform the rescue. The Japanese Rachel, on the other hand, has shown much more ambivalence toward her motherly role, until this crucial moment when her concern for her son’s safety finally helps her find the strength she needs to overcome both psychological terror and physical exhaustion and lift the curse. While fraught parent-child relationships form the basis or at least the background of most of the inter(and intra-)personal strife in the rest of Verbinski’s work, he chose not to lean on those issues heavily in The Ring.
Rachel’s motherly protectiveness of Aiden remains uncomplicated and even extends to Samara, whom Rachel, disregarding the island doctor’s warnings, still views as a murdered innocent. When Aiden finally confirms that, rather than laying a soul to rest, Rachel has done something more akin to letting a monster out of its cage, she can only embrace her son fearfully. With due credit to Watts’s performance, we see Rachel wordlessly realize that the road to hell, whether through exorcism or artistic catharsis, is indeed paved with good intentions.