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In The Cut
The book by Susanna Moore on which the movie is based

. "In the Cut"

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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