Oeuvre: Campion: In the Cut

Oeuvre: Campion: In the Cut

This is not Along Came a Spider but an art house film attempting to destabilize a genre.

A good thriller unveils itself like a magic act, often preposterously but with an exhilarating conclusion that was well worth the wait. In the Cut is not a good thriller. It doesn’t want to be. The film is more a feminist meditation of a woman navigating the fragile male egos that enter her life in New York City. That it is considered otherwise is a credit to the sleight-of-hand artistry of director Jane Campion and Meg Ryan, the film’s star.

Ryan plays Frannie Avery, an English instructor who lives in one of those great East Village apartments that teachers can only afford in movies. She is writing a book on slang, and words and quotes decorate her walls as they do the subway cars she rides. For a time, the Metropolitan Transit Authority put up posters in the subways filled with famous poems. Frannie reads them, collecting the stanzas as she does random jargon. She is in conversation with texts rather than people and is like so many New Yorkers in that regard. She creates a barrier of silence to navigate the city. Her crafted stoicism is meant to act as camouflage against attention, but some men mistake emotionlessness for mystery and they are the archetypes that occupy this movie.

Frannie is the antithesis of every character Ryan became famous playing. The ebullient ticks of her romantic comedy characters Sally Albright, Annie Reed and Kathleen Kelly vanish for a muted expressivity made powerful by its unexpected subtlety. Even in her prior dramatic turns, Ryan hadn’t learned to trust the authority of her star power. She is radiant on screen and the occlusion of that radiance doesn’t dampen expectations of it. Meg Ryan, America’s Sweetheart with the shock of blonde hair, has been hampered here by straight, brown locks and a gravelly voice. Normally a performer known for her verbal and physical expressiveness, Ryan offers little of the familiar here. Frannie is disassociated from her emotions. The fact that a piece of the body of a murder victim was found in the garden outside her apartment window barely causes a ripple in her cool veneer.

Frannie has a student, Cornelius Webb (Sharrieff Pugh), who she regularly meets at a bar. He tutors her in slang and she presumably bumps up his class participation grade. While looking for the bathroom during one of these meetings, Frannie stumbles upon a woman giving a man a blowjob. The man is silhouetted, but Frannie can see his arm and the tattoo on his wrist. She watches for a moment. The man is undoubtedly watching her. She quickly leaves, disturbed by her own voyeurism. It will turn out that the aforementioned severed body part belongs to the woman performing the fellatio, which brings Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) into her life.

Malloy wants to date Frannie because he can’t figure her out. Her mysteriousness is his motivation. She agrees, but their first date goes poorly. Frannie walks home alone and barely escapes a mugging near her apartment. She calls Malloy, and his surprising gentleness sparks a romance. Frannie seems ready to look past Malloy’s many character flaws because of his attentiveness until she notices that he has the same tattoo as the man she saw getting the blowjob. More bodies of women turn up, and Frannie suspects that Malloy is the killer.

All of the plotting is fairly standard for a thriller and is the least interesting aspect of the film. In fact, the movie suffers from the diligent work required to get a gun into Frannie’s hand when she needs it most. But despite these machinations, the gore and the head of the most important woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the protagonist’s life ending up in a bag in a nod to David Fincher’s Se7en, this film reads more as a commentary on Ryan’s past glory than as a typical thriller.

Though the film is situated in Manhattan, this isn’t the same setting of When Harry Met Sally and You Got Mail but rather a scarier city devoid of shots of gesticulating couples debating the Sunday Times. Campion depicts a city of isolation and tenuous safety where a flimsy set of social norms determines one’s sense of victimhood. This is the city dreamers come to, one that will either destroy them or absorb them into its ecosystem. It is not a glamorous place and the love found here doesn’t come with big speeches on New Year’s Eve. This is a dangerous city well before the body count rises.

In her prior work, Ryan always had her choice of good guys, the lesser ones just not quite as good as Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal. All the men are horrible in In the Cut. Malloy is a liar living on his ex-wife’s couch. His great talent for performing cunnilingus was acquired when he was sexually abused as a teenager. He promises Frannie that he’ll never beat her as if this promise is normal and somehow noble. Cornelius gets violent when Frannie rebukes his advances. Kevin Bacon has a cameo as John Graham, a TV actor turned real doctor, who is obsessed with Frannie and prone to manic episodes. He is both a red herring and a representation of the kind of high-performing obsessive who takes rejection as a challenge to be overcome. Once he is in your life it is nearly impossible to extricate him. And, Malloy’s partner, Detective Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) is both a wife beater and the killer who puts engagement rings on all his victims. In this film, marriage quite literally means death. The happy ending here comes handcuffed to a pipe and covered in blood.

For all that is interesting and subversive about In the Cut, it is not Campion’s best. It tends to meander and rely on genre convention that hinders its inventiveness. And, while Ryan’s defiance of expectations is an admirable endeavor, Frannie’s detachment would prove less arduous in a shorter version of this movie. Ultimately, what dooms In the Cut is a misunderstanding about what it is. This is not Along Came a Spider but an art house film attempting to destabilize a genre. It is a film trying to live in two worlds to its detriment.

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