In the Cut
Director : Jane Campion
Screenplay : Jane Campion & Susanna Moore (based on the novel by Susanna More)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Meg Ryan (Frannie Avery), Mark Ruffalo (Detective Malloy), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline), Nick Damici (Detective Rodriguez), Sharrieff Pugh (Cornelius Webb), Sunrise Coigney (Frannie's Young Mother), Heather Litteer (Angela Sands), Patrice O'Neal (Hector)
The victims of the serial killer in Jane Campion’s revisionist thriller In the Cut are described by one character as being “disarticulated,” which is a word that precisely describes the film itself. Meandering, pretentious, but, worst of all, narratively and thematically disjointed, In the Cut is an intriguing effort by an ambitious and flawed filmmaker to reimagine a prototypically misogynistic genre film through the eyes of a complicated female character. On paper, it sounds like a good idea, but the end result is a mess—it keeps all the hacked up female body parts but fails to supply a compelling voice to justify its existence.
With plain, straight brown hair and a frumpy wardrobe, Meg Ryan sheds her media-fueled “good girl” imagine with a dark, highly sexualized turn as Frannie Avery, an English teacher who may or may not have seen the serial killer getting fellated by a soon-to-be-victim in the basement of a seedy bar. Frannie lives alone in a cluttered apartment, and her passion is for language; she carries a notebook with her in which she jots down interesting words, turns of phrase, street slang, or bits of poetry she reads on signs in the subway. Ryan is moody and obtuse in the role, which makes Frannie dark and at times compelling, although mostly she just comes off as sour and not very likable.
She enters into a torrid affair with Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), the police investigator who questions her about the killings and what she saw. Malloy is yet another in Campion’s long line of über-sleazy male protagonists—with his smarmy moustache, overinflated ego, and general crudity, Malloy is a one-dimensional straw man, not a character, and the film’s attempt to generate intrigue as to whether he might be the serial killer runs secondary to his obvious function of embodying every loathsome male characteristic imaginable. (Of course, he’s not alone, as every male character exists to embody some female-threatening trait, right down to Frannie’s father, a serial womanizer, who is seen in silent-film-style flashbacks gleefully slicing through her mother’s legs with ice skates.)
So why, one might ask, would Frannie, an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman, becomes involved with someone who, on their first date, says quite frankly that all he needs in a woman is a heartbeat and a hole? Basically, because Frannie likes sex, and if In the Cut is about anything coherent, it is that women like sex just as much as men and are willing to get it wherever it’s good. And Malloy is good; after their first tryst, Frannie asks breathlessly, “How did you do that to me?,” so it’s not too surprising that she keeps coming back for more, even when she begins to suspect that he might be a serial killer. The conflation of sex and danger is hardly new, and as Campion rachets up the film’s sleaze factor, she tries to pass it off as feminist posturing: Why should men be the only ones willing to debase themselves for a heart-pounding lay?
In the Cut was adapted from a torrid short novel by Susanna Moore, who wrote the screenplay along with Campion. It’s a thriller with ideas, but they come across as muddled because so much of the narrative meanders, at times stumbling into dead ends. This is particularly true of the supporting characters, including an African American student of Frannie’s named Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) whose purpose in the narrative seems to be embodying Frannie’s desire for dangerous sexuality. Unfortunately, his character arc is truncated and incoherent, not to mention potentially offensive as the conflation of his race with danger plays as a none-too-subtle form of latent racism. Other supporting characters include Frannie’s half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is inexplicably depicted in the film’s opening moments as Frannie’s lover. Pauline and Frannie have a close relationship, although almost all of their conversations ultimately boil down to sex, sex, and more sex.
This is, of course, Campion’s obsession as a filmmaker, particularly the ways in which sex can be used as a tool or a weapon. The sex between Frannie and Malloy is hot, but ambiguous; they’re both into it for the sensation, which leaves us little to hold onto as the thriller gears click into place. We have no emotional investment in either character (it’s as if Campion is mimicking Frannie’s emotional detachment in her filmmaking), thus there’s no real urge to find out what happens, who survives, who the killer is, etc. To be fair, Campion isn’t much interested in the traditional aspects of the thriller; to her, the genre is a background on which she can explore her pet themes, and if those themes had been more compelling and coherent, it would be easier to forgive the film’s sluggish pace and it’s embarrassing conclusion in which the killer is finally revealed.
On the plus side, In the Cut looks fantastic. Shot by cinematographer Dion Beebe, who also shot Campion’s supremely silly Holy Smoke (1999), as well as Chicago (2002), it has a gritty, immediate visual texture. Most of it is shot in extreme shallow focus, so that large areas of the frame are blurry and only bits and pieces are sharp enough to direct our attention. Campion wallows a bit too much in urban squalor; her depiction of New York City is a grab bag of garbage, grime, and smoke, painted in desaturated tones and overlaid with an atmosphere of dread and decay. As an externalization of the characters’ inner festering, it’s an apt visual metaphor, although one that’s utilized with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Of course, Campion has never been a subtle filmmaker, but it seems that, with each film she makes, she grows more and more enamored of her own clanging voice regardless of whether it registers beyond her own ears.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick