In the Cut
dir. Jane Campion
Opens Fri Oct 31.

Much ink has already been spilled over Jane Campion's In the Cut, specifically in regard to its star, Meg Ryan, whose performance critics and other scribblers have labeled a "departure." But unless by "departure" they mean "from her clothes," I find the hullabaloo a little perplexing. Yes, yes, "America's Sweetheart" engages in pseudo-explicit coitus with her co-star, Mark Ruffalo, but outside of all the slap 'n' tickle, Ryan's performance offers very little to surprise. Does shedding one's clothes, and tangling in some sweaty sex, automatically make for a daring, noteworthy performance? If so, Shannon Tweed's mantel would surely be aglitter with Oscars by now.

Still, this doesn't mean that Ryan is bad in the film, for she's not--she's merely adequate, if a little bland, in a bad picture. And In the Cut is indeed a bad picture; surprisingly bad, really, given the pedigree involved. Based on Susanna Moore's best-selling novel, it aims to be a sexual thriller with a feminist tweak (think what Basic Instinct should have been, if screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wasn't such a misogynist), but the film, while certainly sexual on more than one occasion, is rarely thrilling.

The film opens splendidly, however, with a credit sequence that promises a grace of craft the rest of the picture is unable to rise to: With an eerie version of "Que Sera Sera" filling our ears, images of New York blur in and out, showing a city frozen in a pre-Giuliani state; downtrodden and grimy, it is much closer to the city of Alan J. Pakula's Klute (or, to cite another classic, Stan Lathan's Beat Street) than the polished metropolis we've grown accustomed to seeing onscreen. It is wonderful to see Gotham once again smudged on celluloid, and if In the Cut makes a smart move, it's that it steers far clear of the shiny neon blunder that is Times Square; set among neighborhoods less traveled by film crews, the picture makes the city seem not just busy, but alive--the greatest city in the world complete with the "blemishes" that define its true character. The New York of In the Cut is not about tourism--there is no Central Park, no Macy's, no Park Avenue--and because of this, the city once again feels real. Unfortunately, Campion squanders her vision, by placing within this setting a story that is, in a word, terrible--a trudging piece of hackwork saddled with a finale sure to cause many slaps upon foreheads.

Ryan plays Frannie Avery, a teacher living in the East Village. Cold and living in somewhat of a self-imposed emotional exile, Frannie finds herself entangled in a rather gruesome affair: the dismembering of women at the hands of a serial killer. When a piece of a victim appears under Frannie's window, Detective Malloy (Ruffalo) appears on her doorstep. Poorly mustachioed, a slow-moving slouch full of sweat and greasiness, Malloy has some questions for Frannie. Question #1: Did she see or hear anything out of the ordinary the other night? Question #2, unspoken but certainly implied: Would she like to grease up and wrestle between the sheets?

And so it is that In the Cut begins to spin, for Frannie did indeed witness something out of the ordinary, and that thing is this: The day of the killing, she encountered a man in the gloomy basement of a bar. Said man, perfectly shadowed as to remain unrecognizable, was receiving a blowjob from a young woman who may or may not have been the victim, and all Frannie could make out of the gentleman's features was a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist--a tattoo very similar to one decorating Detective Malloy's wrist.

Is Malloy the killer? And if so, why is Frannie still drawn to him? And if not, why is she drawn to him? And what does this all have to do with poetry, which Frannie reads on the subway? And, more importantly, why did Campion, a director of considerable talent (see not just The Piano, but the stunning An Angel at My Table for proof), believe such trash would make for an acceptable picture?

By most reports, Susanna Moore's novel was a well-penned effort, but In the Cut is a sizable disaster onscreen; talky and clumsy, it means to mine, I suppose, the complexities and contradictions of sexuality--the desire found in danger, the search for danger out of boredom and self-loathing, etc. --by packaging it in a fairly standard sexual thriller. But the final product is rarely engaging and, at times, outright laughable; a non-mysterious mystery, by the time the film wheezes to its finish with a completely inane and unoriginal climax, you care so little about each of the characters--indeed, you are so thoroughly annoyed with them--that a group dismemberment takes on a certain level of appeal. Even the normally enjoyable Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Frannie's troubled sister Pauline, manages to grate, reduced as she is to little more than a whiny, cluttered soul just one missed dose away from being cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

There is one bright spot to be found in the whole endeavor, however, and that is the work of cinematographer Dion Beebe, previously of Chicago, whose use of blurs and deep colors is beautiful to behold. In the Cut is a rich visual spectacle, smartly assembled in the lenses, and it's too bad that what most of those lenses are aimed at is a mess.

brad@thestranger.com

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