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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2003
"In the Cut," Jane Campion's erotic thriller based on the best-selling novel of the same name, opens with a credit sequence set to the alternative rock band Pink Martini singing "Que Sera, Sera," a nod, presumably, to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Campion doesn't live up to the reference in this at once belabored and muddled movie, whose dreamy visual style and daring sexual material can't elide glaring inconsistencies in tone, plot and logic. Campion and Susanna Moore, who collaborated on the adaptation of Moore's novel, may want audiences to think they've created a groundbreaking, grisly woman's picture, a sort of post-feminist "Seven." Don't believe it. "In the Cut" is yet one more serial-killer police procedural, with provocative sexual politics thrown in for a distracting, if glancingly authentic, frisson.
Meg Ryan plays Frannie, a linguist and teacher living in New York who is a collector -- of words, of sexual experiences, of the city's gritty, seedy subcultures. (Her half-sister, played with affecting vulnerability by Jennifer Jason Leigh, lives above a strip club called the Baby Doll Lounge, where Frannie is on friendly terms with the strippers, pimps and other habitues.) She's recently finished a brief affair with a medical student (Kevin Bacon), who may or may not be stalking her. And she's undertaken a research project involving the history of American slang; she meets regularly at a neighborhood bar with one of her students, a gentle giant with an interest in John Wayne Gacy. While at the bar one day, Frannie happens on a particularly sordid assignation in the basement; later, it turns out that one of her fellow patrons was murdered shortly thereafter. When Frannie is questioned by a police detective named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), the two enter into a bizarre relationship in which Frannie's most deep-seated fears, transgressive desires and urban anxieties come to an explosive fore.
"In the Cut" has received most of its advance publicity as a radical departure for Ryan, who took the lead role when Nicole Kidman (one of the film's producers) backed out. Indeed, Ryan has dramatically recast her image here, trading in her signature mop top and lopsided grin for a far more severe pageboy and an almost constant frown. At one point she tells Malloy that words are her "passion," but it's difficult to believe that this distant, hardened young woman is passionate about anything: Ryan's performance is laconic to the point of mechanical, her dark glasses and strained, haggard physical presence suggesting a passive disengagement at odds with Frannie's complex character.
If "In the Cut" contains a breakout performance, it's from Ruffalo, whose Malloy owes more than just a name to Marlon Brando's character in "On the Waterfront." Until now, Ruffalo's most memorable turn was as the prodigal brother in "You Can Count on Me"; here, he takes a dizzying 180-degree turn as a sexy, slightly dangerous bad boy -- who may or may not be a good guy. Even when he's delivering the worst dialogue of "In the Cut" -- and some of it is admittedly appalling -- Ruffalo maintains an electrifying, genuinely erotic charge. With a 1970s-era mustache and mumbling elocution, he's unsettlingly convincing as a man whose sexual magnetism lies not in leading-man good looks but in his ability to portray himself as both a protector and, if the situation warrants, a predator.
These tricky sexual dynamics clearly interest Campion more than the thriller elements of "In the Cut," in which Frannie has a tendency to walk into dark basements and get into strange men's cars at a rate clearly disproportionate to her intelligence. The red herrings are trotted out almost by rote, with no finesse or subtlety, as are frequent outbursts of gratuitous gore. By the movie's ludicrous conclusion, viewers will have abandoned all hope of getting the mature thriller they might have paid to see.
But if "In the Cut" fails as a thriller, it's not such a write-off as a psychosexual portrait of a certain kind of single Manhattan woman at the turn of the new century. With its restless, jittery camera, the movie captures the jangly paranoia of a city that is often equally tantalizing and threatening; Frannie responds in kind, with her own contradictory sexual persona, which at certain times is defiantly autonomous and at others almost timidly girlish. A "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" for the post-9/11 age (the remnants of that tragedy form one of the movie's many visual leitmotifs), "In the Cut" focuses on the darker face of the classic New York romance. It's a face that's grimly credible, if seldom seen. Within an otherwise flawed, forgettable movie, Campion has managed to offer a vivid, if fleeting, glimpse of the wariness, self-deception and fear that shadow so many illicit thrills of sex in the city.