Film/TV » Film Features

Death Becomes Her

Luminous Naomi Watts in The Ring, plus another Culkin kid in Igby Goes Down.

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A remake of a massively popular Japanese film of the same name, current box-office champ The Ring opens with a set piece similar to that of the Scream series. It's a dark and stormy night in a big, mostly empty house. Two comely teenage girls sit in one girl's bedroom and gossip. By the end of the night, one will be dead and one will be headed to the psychiatric ward. The actual setup is also in the vein of recent American teen-horror films: One girl tells an urban legend about a videotape -- anyone who watches it gets a call saying they'll die in seven days, which they do. The other girl gulps:"I saw it. Seven days ago."

But this opening also cues the audience that this isn't another one of those horror movies. The scene isn't played for laughs --ironic or queasy -- or for gore. It's played for maximum creep effect. And it's effective.

The dead girl's aunt, Rachel (Naomi Watts), is an investigative reporter, and the girl's mother asks her to try to determine why her daughter died ("Sixteen-year-old girls' hearts don't just stop. I've talked to three different doctors, and no one can tell me exactly why my daughter died"). Rachel soon hears talk of the videotape and discovers that the other kids who watched it with her niece also died, all at 10 p.m. the same night. Rachel tracks the tape down fairly easily (it is waiting to be found) and, without hesitation, watches it. Then she gets the call.

Creepy details pile up: Rachel's grade school son Aidan has been drawing pictures of a dead girl at school, which Rachel takes to be a coping mechanism after the death of her beloved niece -- except that he started making the drawings before her death. Photographic images of people who have seen the tape -- including Rachel and her estranged boyfriend (and Aidan's father) Noah (played by Martin Henderson), a video technician, to whom she shows the tape -- are blurred.

The tape itself, which Noah derides as "very student-film," is a catalog of perhaps subconsciously connected black-and-white images, sort of a cross between Un Chien Andalou and a Nine Inch Nails video but sufficiently skin-crawling. Technology wizard Noah somehow determines that it couldn't have been made by any camera he's aware of. (Something about an ID number encoded on videotapes.)

Having watched the tape and gotten the call, Rachel has seven days to unravel the mystery before her own demise, which gives the film its structure, and the details of the tape's origin begin to emerge. What at first seems to be the result of some electronic transmission coming from the tape itself turns into something a little different, and Rachel's sleuthing leads to an isolated island, an insane asylum, an old, dark house, a sordid family history, and other evocative ghost-story material. Along the way, the film fetishizes a few creepy images: a long ladder leading to a barn loft, an old well buried underneath a cabin, a lighthouse over a rocky beach.

The Ring is no great film. As recent horror films go, it's neither as accomplished as The Sixth Sense nor as sui generis as The Blair Witch Project. It does have some of the skin-crawling atmospherics of the finest arty '60s horror films -- Night of the Living Dead, Carnival of Souls, Repulsion. And it stays a step ahead of its many plot holes and implausibilities. It also comes with the now de rigueur twist ending, except this time, the device isn't gratuitous. It's necessary: a not-quite-happy ending that withholds reassurance and throws the fear back at the audience.

And if nothing else, The Ring is notable as the first film for Watts since her historic performance in Mulholland Drive. Watts (who'll be filming 21 Grams in Memphis later this year) acquits herself wonderfully in what is a far less compelling role (will there ever be another role like Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn?), proving that her electric performance for David Lynch was no fluke and that she can carry more mainstream material on her own. -- Chris Herrington

Igby Slocumb, title character of Igby Goes Down, is a rascal, as my grandmother would say. Equal parts charmer, thief, sycophant, whiz kid, and brat, Igby (Kieran Culkin) gets what he wants and he's not afraid to starve on the street to prove that he's cleverer than everyone around him. No proper school on the East Coast will have him (he's been through most of them), and mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) is at the end of her rope in her attempts to sophisticate and legitimize him, juggling Igby-wrangling with her feisty battle with breast cancer. Brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), an opportunistic Columbia frosh, is the model of vacant parental approval: successful, articulate, bland. Oliver could be Thurston Howell III's long-lost grandson, with Igby as an unwelcome hindrance to his social calendar and Young Republican ladder-climbing.

There is something spooky about the Culkin family. I envision the following scenario: Walt Disney, in his twilight years, works feverishly on a mysterious fertility drug that will produce the perfect child actor. Disney leaves the drug safely hidden in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World but dies before he can create his race of tap-dancing, tinny-voiced, smiling miniature superkids. Enter Kit and Patricia Culkin, years later, happy newlyweds on their honeymoon, who stumble on the secret formula in between Epcot and Neverneverland. She drinks the formula and you know the rest.

The Culkins are a little hard to keep track of, but Kieran is the one who was in Father of the Bride, The Cider House Rules, and this past summer's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Like Altar Boys, this is a skewed coming-of-age drama -- not in the vein of Stand by Me or Empire of the Sun, by any means, but quite like Rushmore. We know that Igby is smarter than anyone else in the movie from the get-go. It's not about smarts. The point of the journey lies in catching the heart up with the head. Igby grows up a little, hates his mother, encounters sex (and lots of it, with the sexy Amanda Peet and the smartly acrid Claire Danes) and drugs and adultery and corruption before his eventual return home. The first scene, a flash-forward, shows Igby and Oliver at Mimi's bedside, putting a plastic bag over her head. Are they trying to kill her? The scene, quirky and amusingly troubled, cuts away to the beginnings of Igby's adventures. One of the last scenes brings us back to this moment -- now not so quirky, not so funny. Igby spends so much time avoiding and cursing his mother that we expect some intellectually giddy triumph from his chance to end her altogether. The film's success lies in connecting these two dots, and Kieran plays the full circle with grown-up mischief and real-kid hurt.

This is a movie for literate audiences who enjoy smallish films with subtly quirky characters and no easy answers. The dramatic element of Igby is always coated with humor and dark wit. The comedy is laced with pain. The film's violence, sexuality, and glimpses of mortality are usually accompanied by big laughs. The performances are finely tuned to this humor, with a cast of underrated comics that includes Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum (in a delightfully low-key turn as Igby's patronizing godfather), and Bill Pullman as the schizophrenic Slocumb patriarch. In fact, the film's tone is arguably set by Pullman. Each time we see him, in the present or in flashback, we are drawn further and further into the darkness of the film's bitter wit, concluding with a bizarre and haunting bathroom scene between a teeth-brushing young Igby (played by younger brother Rory Culkin -- see? there's dozens of 'em) and his bloodied, showering father. Having only seen Pullman in the lowbrow Spaceballs, Independence Day, and Mr. Wrong, it's nice to see some interesting, real acting from him. The film shares in his schizophrenia, and when the film comes full circle with Igby's closure with numb brother Oliver, meanie Mom, and crazy Dad, we feel just as finished, just as strong as Igby. Not for the faint of heart or those who wonder about where their kids are. They'll just worry more. -- Bo List

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