This is a hard edged love story wrapped up in a serial killer detective yarn.
It starts out with a lackadaisacal quality as though it had nowhere to go but
by allowing the characters their space within increasingly sordid events,
director Jane Campion develops dramatic purchase on our interest. For what
might aruguably have been Campion's most exploratory work to date, she adapts
Susanna Moore's novel to create a nearly lethal dose of emotion-deprivation,
turning spine tickling dread into something nearly dreadful.
Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) is a lonely New York english teacher without a
boyfriend or a decent excuse for why not. What she does have in her life is
half-sister Pauline, a close confidant of private thoughts; student Cornelius
Webb (Sharrieff Pugh) whom she's privately tutoring; her own personal stalker
John Graham (Kevin Bacon), a chaotic street person with a high IQ; and a
sexual drive that could make her famous, if not desperate.
If you think we have some strange elements on which to hang a plot, you
haven't heard anything yet. Frannie has a tutoring session with student
Webb, who is big, young and black, in a local bar. When the undercurrent of
erotic fantasy threatens to change the teaching-learning dynamic, Frannie
excuses herself to go the bathroom. But this Manhattan bar doesn't seem to
have one -- at least not in the conventional sense. Frannie, in search of
a toilet, finds herself in a hellish subterranean cellar where sounds can
be heard. As she peers around a wall, she sees a man in deep shadow being
fellated by woman. As the man reaches around the woman's head, a tattoo on
his wrist becomes visible.
What does Frannie do? She returns to her table, finds student Webb gone,
and returns home. That's when tough homicide detective James A. Malloy (Mark
Ruffalo) enters the picture with a knock on her door. He's canvassing her
building to see if anyone heard anything around the time a woman was killed
and parts of her body dumped outside. Frannie heard nothing and later, her
impressions of Malloy becoming a new erotic fantasy, she masturbates to it.
(no, I'm not making this up).
With a certain male clairvoyance, Malloy seems to know his women. He's a
detective by acumen, not accident. He puts the image of the lone city woman
with no signs of a boyfriend or a husband together with her manner and
mannerisms to form the conclusion that his sexual attraction to her is
returned. This suspicion turns to a night of volcanic lust and revelation.
When he learns that she was in the bar and may have seen something, he asks
her to come to the police station to look at suspect photos, where she meets,
for the second time, Malloy's slick talking, aggressive partner, Detective
Richard Rodriguez (Nick Damici).
Women continue to turn up dead (remember, this is a serial killer yarn?) and
they begin to become people Frannie knows or is close to.
Now, when pixiesh, girl-next-door Meg Ryan wants to change her image, and
when turning tough ala Captain Karen Emma Walden in "Courage Under Fire"
doesn't recut her sufficiently in the minds of directors who still want to
cast her in cute romances ("You've Got Mail"), she might well turn to
something down and grungy, something that allows her to bare it all, to get
down with eroticism, to open up her dark side. And what better company to do
it with than ally Jane Campion and hunk Ruffalo? You go girl.
As for Ruffalo, he turns in one of the most believable detective characters
this side of reality. This is not a stereotype, folks. There's no drug
payoffs, no in-house corruptions, no power hunger in this hardbitten
portrayal. His tough talk is believably pheromonal to the female of the
species, however practical his world view and purposeful his crude language.
These are the mean streets of New York, after all, and he fits. Beyond NYPD?
Yes. Award level performance? I'd say so.
The better elements of the drama, however, are shot down by a hollowness in
the souls of the characters. Just when a degree of sympathy and caring for
the central figures is getting built, the driving superficiality manifests
itself with no requirement for deeper fulfillment. The desire depicted is
physical, not passionate, making it dirty, sordid. The love side of this is
given to us as a quest for the orgasm. The insistent toughness imprisons the
characters in a mold with no emotional composition.
We're also aware of a certain manipulation. It takes no story genius to
detect that the omnipresent stalker John Graham is there to divert our
attention, the classic red herring. You Hitchcock fans will know exactly
what I mean.
Technically, the film gets every benefit of gritty and shadowy atmosphere by
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Chicago").
So, we're left with the question of how a fine female director like Campion,
capable of "The Piano", and "Holy Smoke" (for which she takes writing
and co-writing credits also) would promote the simplistic image of a lonely
woman driven by need to achieve fulfillment through sexual satisfaction.
Aren't there enough male directors around to further that stereotype? Maybe
Ryan isn't in such reliable image-changing company, after all. I never did
think her boobs were her best asset, anyway.
~~ Jules Brenner