A 'Cut' Above the Rest
by Jeffrey M. Anderson
On the surface, Jane Campion's new film In the Cut deals with a murder mystery. But that's just to get you into the theater. It's no more a murder mystery than Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut or Clint Eastwood's Tightrope or Mystic River were, but it equals those films in excellence.
Campion does not get anywhere near Hitchcock territory, nor does she intend to. She's one of our most psychosexual filmmakers, delving into regions previously mined only by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre).
Meg Ryan deserves massive kudos for the bravest, most startling work she's ever done here, as a character desperately grasping at some form of humanity. The role was originally intended for Nicole Kidman -- who remains credited as a producer -- but Ryan's natural sweetness and vulnerability actually work in her favor.
Ryan plays Frannie Avery. She's a New York City English teacher, but there's something missing in her life. Somewhere deep inside her, a cog is stuck. She obsessively gathers quotes and bits of poetry that hang all over her walls on scraps of paper and sticky notes. And her sexual energy longs for release.
Her ex-boyfriend doesn't help; he's a needy actor-turned-med student (an un-credited Kevin Bacon) who borders on psychotic stalking. And advice from her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doesn't make much sense either. Pauline lives over a strip club and seeks out meaningless sex with married doctors.
Frannie sometimes meets with one of her students (Sharrieff Pugh) who is working on a paper about John Wayne Gacy. While meeting at a sleazy nightclub, Frannie adjourns to the ladies' room and becomes fascinated by a woman fellating a man in the club's dark basement.
Everything changes when a neighborhood murder brings a moustached cop (Mark Ruffalo) to her door. She begins by fantasizing about the cop and eventually her fantasies become reality. Still the murderer continues to strike, and danger gets closer to home.
Campion uses the scenario to describe a big city female's conundrum. Frannie feels pure and constant sexual urges, but in modern-day New York, her reality is that sexual release just isn't safe. The men out there are all, to some degree, neurotic, psychotic or dangerous. This is not a fashionable thing to discuss, because in many of today's movies women can kung-fu a guy if he blinks the wrong way. And women's sexuality in general is still a taboo topic.
In one scene, Frannie asks her sister why she doesn't just stay home where it's safe and fantasize about the doctor. Pauline replies, "That's no fun." Frannie can't take her own advice any more than Pauline can. The urge for actual flesh is too great.
In a later scene, Pauline asks about Frannie's encounter with the cop. Frannie explains that she didn't "let" the cop have sex with her; she wanted to. Pauline ponders the difference, wondering why she always remembers sex in reference to what the men liked, and not what she liked.
Campion envelops this world in a thick, slightly distorted visual atmosphere in which details suddenly become clearer, not dissimilar from that of Blade Runner. Images like a young girl running down the street or a face scrawled on a window stick in the memory. So does most of the dialogue, glances and silences.
These complex rhythms may perplex and offend many viewers, especially those hoping to see America's Sweetheart in another of her cuddly Hollywood yarns.
And even more adventurous moviegoers are apt to be disappointed when Campion is eventually forced to solve her murder mystery. The film falters on that level, leaving off with a vaguely frustrating thud.
But up to that point, Campion hits the same thematic ground with the same passionate release as she did in The Piano (1993) and the underrated Holy Smoke (1999). All three films examine the ages-old myth that men are hunters and women are hunted and that the difference between "wild" and "tame" is not always easy to grasp.
The fact that Campion and author co-screenwriter Susanna Moore bring these questions up at all -- much less leave them unanswered -- seems to have sent everyone off in a tizzy. Do not be thrown off the scent. This is an extraordinary film from a great filmic artist.
DVD Details: Jane Campion's completely misunderstood and underrated film is now available in an "unrated director's cut" edition, which I have not yet seen.