Since she previously gave one of my all-time favorite film performances in Mulholland Dr., one of my all-time favorite films, it's going to take a lot more than a cheesy little scare flick for me to write off Naomi Watts. But it must be said that in The Ring - a horror movie by Gore Verbinski, with a script by Arlington Road's Ehren Kruger - Ms. Watts comes off as a very poor actress indeed.
On the surface, she's just fine; her focus and direct gaze make her rather bland prettiness bewitching, and she certainly gives her material all she's got. And therein lies the problem: She's giving her material far too much. When she shrieks in terror or yowls in anger, or is merely red-eyed with apprehension and fear, her reactions are so wildly overblown for the images and events she's reacting to that you feel embarrassed for her; you begin to wonder if it's the character who's unbalanced or the actress. The Ring has many, many faults, but its most depressing one is that it makes the sublime Naomi Watts look like an idiot for working so hard; she's giving the film the same intensity she brought to Mulholland Dr., but because what we see on the screen isn't scary, or disturbing, or even coherent, it's intensity in a void. All it does is make her look incompetent.
The Ring, which is based on a Japanese cult classic from 1997, casts Watts as Rachel, a reporter who, after the mysterious death of her niece, investigates what is purported to be the murder weapon: a videotape that, once watched (and which Rachel does watch), will cause its viewer to die in seven days. It's one of those amusingly creepy, supernatural plotlines that really can't go anywhere - it's not like this "killer" can be brought to justice - and can't be logically explained. Yet, amazingly, Verbinski and Kruger spend close to two hours trying to explain it, and in doing so, they suck all possible fun out of the movie. We see shots from the videotape - a woman in a mirror, a horse on a beach, a ladder - and then we see Rachel discovering exactly where those shots came from, and all this proves ... what? Rachel is trying to unlock pieces of a puzzle and uncover the tape's meaning in an attempt to save her life and the lives of others, but the filmmakers seem to forget that she will never untangle the mystery behind who shot the film, or how, exactly, it kills people, or from whom the "You have seven days" warning is coming. Nothing ruins the enjoyment of a supernatural horror film like the intrusion of logic, and The Ring, unfortunately, is ass-deep in supposed logistics.
This might not have been completely debilitating if the movie was at least frightening. But after a moderately clever prologue, where two teen girls work themselves into a jumpy lather, the scares just aren't there; the only time I flinched was when a charging steed took a painful-looking tumble, and I physically reacted only because I can't imagine how Verbinski filmed this sequence without actually killing the horse. (That's not the kind of scare you want.) In the meantime, we're subjected to too little backstory for Rachel, too much screen time with her ex-lover Noah (an annoying Martin Henderson), and a weird, Sixth Sense-y subplot involving Rachel's child (David Dorfman), who, apparently, knows all but ain't tellin'. Verbinski even manages to bungle something that should have been unmissable: The magnificent Jane Alexander shows up in a cameo, and even she's no help. The Ring might have arrived just in time for Halloween, but it's a trick that's no treat.
Two-thirds of the way through writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Abandon, you'll probably still have no idea where events are leading, but the trip is certainly painless. Katie (Katie Holmes) is an ambitious, driven college senior whose boyfriend, Embry (Charlie Hunnam), mysteriously vanished when she was a sophomore. The police are now officially investigating his disappearance, and Detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt) begins to question Katie and her friends as to what might have happened to him. In between flirtatious interrogations with the detective, Katie works hard on her thesis paper, hangs out with friends, rejects the romantic advances of a sweet, clueless pal, engages in teary-eyed sessions with her guidance counselor, and maybe, just maybe, sees the long-lost Embry watching her from afar. All of this is well-acted by an unusually good cast, written with terse believability, and directed with a gravity that never becomes heavy-handed. Yet after you've sat through more than an hour of Abandon, you might find yourself getting itchy, and saying to yourself, "This is all very pleasant, but isn't this supposed to be a thriller?"
I'm all for genre movies that defy a rigid structure, and for a while, I loved that Abandon wasn't strictly about Katie Holmes being victimized by an ex. (Enough is enough.) But it soon becomes clear that the movie, however nicely it's being executed, isn't really about anything else; the movie has to become a thriller because it has nowhere else to go. So the film's fine, quirky opening hour leads to inevitable disappointment, with Katie walking through dark, gloomy sets where Ethan can pop out at any moment, and with the obligatory "twist" ending that violates nearly every event that preceded it. Gaghan manages to pull off an impressive scare when Katie and Embry lock eyes in a library (which is one more fright than you'll get in all of The Ring), but he doesn't give his obligatory thriller set-pieces enough zest in the last half-hour; you exit the theatre feeling shortchanged, but the cast, at least, does its best to give you your money's worth.
After her ghastly overacting in The Gift, Katie Holmes is back on track with her lovely, understated vulnerability, and Gaghan was smart to make Hunnam's Embry an astonishingly full-of-himself, tortured artiste who stages original theatricial pieces and then mocks the audience for attending them; Hunnam plays this figure exactly the way he would be perceived in college - dangerous, ridiculous, and sexy as hell. Benjamin Bratt gives his detective an undercurrent of sadness that's very appealing, and terrific actors keep showing up all throughout the film: Gabrielle Union, Mark Feuerstein, Fred Ward, Melanie Jayne Lynskey, Will McCormack, Tony Goldwyn, and best of all Zooey Deschanel, who, after her marvelous work in this year's Big Trouble and The Good Girl, is unquestionably the supporting actress of the year. The cast alone makes Abandon better than your standard stalker flick; once he assembled these actors, though, Gaghan would have been wise to ditch his thriller plot entirely; 90 minutes of this group merely talking would have made for more gripping entertainment.