Meg Ryan on the Cut-ting Edge

BY LYNN LEE

Meg Ryan as the star of a Jane Campion film? It sounds, at first blink, like a mistake; at second, like exploitative stunt casting. Remarkably, casting Ryan turns out to be the smartest move in Campion’s latest oeuvre, the intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying “In the Cut.”

Ryan plays emphatically against type as Frannie, a repressed, unmarried high school English teacher who gets involved in the investigation of a woman’s brutal murder in her neighborhood. More specifically, she gets involved with the homicide detective investigating the case, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), whose crude sexual frankness frankly turns her on – as does her suspicion that he himself may be the murderer, a serial killer who dismembers his victims. Not that there aren’t other suspects; the handful of supporting characters all seem to have a screw loose somewhere and an unhealthy interest in Frannie’s movements.

Notwithstanding the lurid storyline (adapted from the novel by Susannah Moore), a fair amount of rather graphic sex and a few grisly shots of the victims’ remains, “In the Cut” gravely eschews cheap thrills. If you can imagine an arty slasher film, this is it: the jittery camera, the slightly fuzzy focus, the stark lighting that reduces the characters to washed-out palefaces and New York to a labyrinth of blind alleys and dark corners. The actual scenes of gore feel coldly removed: in one scene, a character clasps a decapitated head to her breast, yet the effect is overly stylized, like a stiff nod to Greek tragedy or Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.

The sex is more interesting than the murders, and not just because Meg Ryan strips down to the buff. Campion indefatigably mines the rather flimsy source material for her pet themes: the subconscious (and self-destructive) desires of women, the fine line between desire and violence, and the power dynamics between men and women. Fortunately for her purposes, there is a real, palpable tension between her two leads. Ruffalo, so good in “You Can Count on Me,” is even better here as the plainspoken yet inscrutable cop who stokes Frannie’s hidden fires. When he takes Frannie out, it’s unclear from his unnerving calm and probing interrogations – sprinkled with explicitly sexual asides that he delivers without missing a beat – whether he’s treating her as a potential witness, lover or victim. Yet he emits a kind of animal magnetism, devoid of swagger or strut, that makes it easier to understand why Frannie is drawn to him.

Ryan, however, is the revelation here. This isn’t her first attempt at breaking free of her romantic comedy image, but it’s perhaps the first such role that she slips into almost imperceptibly rather than putting on like an uncomfortable mask. No trace of bubbly cuteness remains, from the limp brown hair to the taut set of her shoulders and the uncertain position of her hands as she encounters the men (yes, there’s more than one, including Kevin Bacon twitching uncomfortably as a basket-case ex-boyfriend) who may be either stalking her or trying to lay her – or both. When her Frannie finally snaps, she cuts a formidable figure of rage and desire without overacting.

Unfortunately, Campion heroines tend to be maddeningly opaque, and Frannie is no exception – despite the director’s occasional gestures at penetrating the deeper recesses of her psyche via her linguistic fascination with slang, her relationship with her half-crazy, half-slutty half sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her surreal flashback fantasies of her parents’ romance. None of these rather tired devices really work, and her repeated flirtations with violent death (what woman walks home late at night alone in New York, especially with a serial killer on the loose?), whatever feast they may offer hungry psychoanalysts, also have the effect of benumbing us to the danger of her situation.

They also have the effect of slowing down an already measured narrative. I found myself at some point not caring whether Malloy was the murderer but just wanting him to get on with it and kill her if he was. I am not entirely sure that isn’t part of the film’s intent, but if so, it makes the ludicrously over-the-top moment where Frannie finally confronts the murderer disappointingly anticlimactic. In the end, Campion doesn’t quite succeed in transcending the creaky conventions of her chosen genre, and we are left with two coherent, sharply drawn performances amid a half-cooked stew of arthouse clichés and slaughterhouse pulp.

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