It’s often an unhappy experience when a highly personal filmmaker tackles a conventional genre, and in this case the result is even worse than usual. Jane Campion–whose peculiar brand of feminism informed “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table” and who then went on to score an unlikely success with “The Piano” (but more recently tanked with the awful “Holy Smoke”)–has applied her woozy vision to more standard material before, in her unorthodox and torpid 1996 adaptation of Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady.” Now she tackles a predictable–indeed, ludicrously humdrum–serial killer/damsel in distress opus and tries to give her own spin to the dreary stuff, but in this tussle the genre absolutely loses; as a thriller “In the Cut” is an unmitigated disaster. Unhappily, whatever message Campion might have wanted to convey through the piece gets lost in the shuffle, too. The result is quite simply a terrible movie in every respect, and Campion’s bizarre spin on the script simply makes it fouler than it might have been if made by a merely competent hack.
Meg Ryan, trying to change her image and stretch into highly dramatic territory, looks plain and glum as Frannie Avery, a New York City writing teacher who–apparently for reasons related to the fact that her father was a compulsive philanderer–is averse to any sort of romantic commitment. Instead she spends her time compiling a dictionary of street slang and hanging out with her bedraggled half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). While visiting a dismal bar with one of her sources (and students), Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), she witnesses a man in the shadows being sexually serviced by a woman, and notices (absurdly, since she’s not even close enough to see his face) that he has a small tattoo on his wrist. Later she’s visited by an earthily charismatic homicide detective called–if you can believe it–Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who’s inquiring after information on a recent murder in the area. As it turns out, the person who’s been killed and gruesomely dismembered was the woman Frannie had seen in the bar, and Malloy understandably becomes interested in her for professional reasons. Needless to say, he also grows obsessed with her for less official ones, and before long they’re spending time in the sack together (Ryan disrobes and reveals all, though without much enthusiasm, it must be admitted) and taking little jaunts to the park in order to do target practice on bags of garbage floating in the lake. (Yeah, sure.) Frannie’s grim demeanor doesn’t suggest that she’s getting much enjoyment from all of this, and things get worse when she notices that Malloy has–gasp!–that pesky tattoo on his wrist! There are, one should, other potential suspects loitering around the edges of the story like smelly red herrings. There’s Cornelius, of course, who seems to have an unhealthy interest in Frannie; and Rodriguez (Nick Damici), Malloy’s gruff partner; and most importantly John Graham (Kevin Bacon), an obviously unstable ex-boyfriend of Frannie’s who’s now stalking her.
In fairness to Bacon, he’s apparently taken his name off the credits and is unbilled (though he’s still in the press notes), so his busy, frazzled performance should be given a pass. But the others are fair game: Ryan is dourly dull, Ruffalo’s expression of pained bafflement has never seemed more apt, and Leigh appears to realize she’s slumming. Pugh has some screen presence, but Damici is tediously obnoxious in a poorly-defined role.
But the dreadfulness of the movie isn’t really the cast’s fault. The narrative of “In the Cut,” which Campion fashioned along with Susanna Moore, on whose novel the script is based, is pathetically familiar–the tale of a heroine distraught over the possibility that her lover might be a villain was hackneyed when “Gaslight” first appeared (and does anyone remember “Midnight Lace”?) But to be honest, Campion isn’t interested in the plot. If she were, she wouldn’t permit it to be presented so chaotically and to end the muddled mess with one of those contrived confrontations between killer and star that makes one long for another viewing of “Wait Until Dark,” where the cliche was at least carried off with panache. Campion’s desire is rather to say something about women’s liberation and their continued abuse, and so she fills the picture with scenes of debasement (lots of prostitutes and naked dancers) and grisly slaughter of females (plenty of splattered blood here, and disembodied limbs, too). If a man had made this movie, it would be called misogynist; does the fact that it’s the work of a woman make it any less so? But even worse, the point of the exercise remains determinedly obscure.
If the picture is an incoherent mess narratively, stylistically it’s no better. Though Dion Beebe’s cinematography gives Campion what she wants, what she’s after is apparently a look of perpetually gloomy foreboding, and so what one winds up with is a succession of shots that resemble slickly-photographed piles of garbage. Worse, she opts for a jerky, hand-held camera and restless editing, which gives everything an oppressively claustrophobic feel (the intent, one supposes) but also a visually ugly appearance. And she tosses in luminous black-and-white flashbacks, reminiscent of much of “Portrait of a Lady,” that offer a silly opulence in contrast.
“In the Cut” probably represents a good deal of effort, which only makes the outcome all the more depressing. This is a supremely distasteful exercise in gloom and violence, a thriller that never thrills, a romance that never engages, a feminist tract that debases its subject. It should send the unfortunate Ryan scurrying back to make “Kate and Leopold II.”