Jane Campion Goes Deep: In the Cut
Mar 1, 2005 (Updated Mar 4, 2005)
Review by William Jones
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Jane Campion, Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo give good performances, interesting subtext, Dion Beebe photography
Cons:Logical inconsistencies, doesn't really work as a thriller
The Bottom Line: Better than you think, although certainly not Campion's best.
Cut to pieces by most reviewers, the adult-oriented In the Cut isn't as bad as the majority would have you believe. It may be that Meg Ryan, baring all, gives her best performance here. And co-star Mark Ruffalo ("Collateral") is very good as well. Illogical at times yet engrossing, In the Cut managed to capture my attention in more than just the obvious ways.
Recommend this product?
An adaptation of Susanna Moore's 1995 erotic thriller, co-written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), the film often evokes Seventies cinema: e.g., "Klute," "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Taxi Driver" (that last one mostly in terms of Dion Beebe's baroque visuals).
Cast against type, Meg Ryan dyed her hair brown to better suit the role (à la Nicole Kidman who was initially pegged for the part). Ryan is Frannie Avery, an unfulfilled English teacher and writer living alone in New York City. "Are you happy when you wake up," her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks early on. "No," she matter-of-factly replies. Environment doesn't help: Frannie rents an apartment in a risky section of the city. Here, graffiti and garbage litter the streets, and bars, pimps and prostitutes are commonplace.
It is in one of these noisy bars that Frannie, looking for a bathroom, spies a couple engaged in a sex act. A man, his face hidden in shadows, is being fellated. While Frannie can't make out any facial features, she notices a few small details: the man smokes; there's a tattoo on the inside of his wrist; and the woman has long, blue fingernails. This unseen woman will subsequently turn up dead, her throat cut, her body "disarticulated" according to Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), the homicide detective investigating the case. (Frannie's "passion" is collecting words, quotes and bits of poetry, so, not surprisingly, she jots that one down.)
On a follow-up interview, Malloy will ask Frannie out and, egged on by Pauline ("You've got to go, just for the exercise you should go") she'll meet the detective in a bar. Here Malloy will test the sexual waters with some very frank talk. He's no Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal, this coarse detective, he knows he's free to move forward insofar as no objections are raised. And none are.
The film rewards the observant viewer. A scene in Frannie's classroom, for example, is memorable in that a red lighthouse has been drawn on the chalkboard. This corresponds with the assigned reading, "To the Lighthouse," a stream-of-consciousness novel by Virginia Woolf (surely this is a college class, not the inner-city high school some reviewers have mistaken it for). But the lighthouse drawing has a dual meaning as well, because it's obviously a phallic symbol. The scene is noteworthy, too, in that some students complain nothing much happens in Woolf's book ("Yeah, one old lady dies"). "How many ladies have to die to make it good?" Frannie asks. The answer, necessitating the direction our plot will take, "At least three."
In the Cut is, in some ways, similar to an Italian giallo: a serial killer plot with a witness who may know more than she thinks she knows; an assailant (masked in one scene) who only targets women and uses bladed weapons; a mystery with clues and red herrings. And yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if the genre was entirely unfamiliar to Campion.
As the story plays out and more women get cut apart we zero in on a short list of suspects. There's Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), a brawny black student (one of Frannie's) who is writing a term paper on John Wayne Gacy and postulates that the convicted serial killer is an innocent "victim." There's also an intense ex-boyfriend (an uncredited Kevin Bacon), a medical student who's often seen lurking around with his ratty dog, though he claims to work 18-hour days. He's been having "pretty bad" panic attacks and feels he should be on antidepressants; he lets on, too, that his mother used to dress him up in girl's clothing. And then there's Malloy. Frannie wants to believe in him, he's boffo in bed, after all (full frontal nudity from both actors), but then it might be that he's also a great deceiver.
As many reviewers have been quick to point out, In the Cut isn't a satisfying thriller. It's more intriguing in terms of its subtext. For myself, I'll abide the lack of thrills insofar as I'm given something else to ponder. Here Campion bookends her movie with an odd, dissonant version of "Que Sera Sera," a song normally associated with Doris Day. She also intercuts several dreamy, sepia-colored fantasy flashbacks wherein a young, attractive couple first meet while ice-skating (curious at first, we subsequently learn they're related to our heroine). These elements (along with some nifty other ones I'll leave you to discover on your own) provide the film its theme.
Campion's feminist bent, on view in all her films, is readily apparent in In the Cut as well. Her message is not that the world is a dangerous place and men are not to be trusted. More along the line that idealized romantic models carry far too much weight with women. (In an online interview with The Spinning Image, Campion talks about "how that model falls short for us, and creates an enormous amount of grief.")
Upon close examination, we see that Frannie's ice-skating fantasy isn't as "romantic" as she makes it out to be. A handsome man, already engaged, falls for another woman while out skating and impulsively proposes to this woman when his fiancée tosses her ring back. Romantic? In what sense? As it turns out, the man is both Frannie and Pauline's father, but they don't share the same mother. That's because he married several times: i.e., serially, see the connection?
Meg Ryan deserves some props for this one. Intriguing and thought provoking, I recommend In the Cut.
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