I refuse to give up on Jane Campion. In terms of setting a visual mood, she remains one of the top-notch directors out there, even if her choices in material have been funky for about a decade now. Exhibit A would be In the Cut, roundly described as terrible — an erotic thriller without eroticism or thrills — a charge I find difficult to dispute, except that I don’t really think an erotic thriller is what Campion had in mind.
Working from the dry-ice 1995 novel by Susanna Moore (who co-scripted with the director), Campion approaches the basic narrative thread — woman gets in touch with her nasty side by carrying on a torrid affair with a man who might be a murderer — as a jittery, stylistically dodgy meditation on desire and self-destruction. Woe to anyone who rents In the Cut hoping for something suspenseful or arousing.
A look at Moore’s novel — which can probably be read in about the time it takes to watch the film — reveals a not very different game plan. The unnamed narrator, a professor of English, obsesses about words and slang, and couches her experiences in spare, standoffish prose that, after a while, clues you in on how much she’s feeling but not expressing. Campion nails the tone of the book exactly once, when the movie’s protagonist, here named Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), discovers a body part in a sink; the sense of floating detachment rolling slowly into horror is what separates an artist from a garden-variety purveyor of cheap shocks.
Meg Ryan isn’t really in this movie — at least not the Meg Ryan we’ve come to be familiar (and bored) with, the cuddly Meg of romantic comedies, although she has been bedraggled and not-nice in such films as When a Man Loves a Woman and Hurlyburly. Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe shoot Ryan unflatteringly whenever possible, bringing out the hollows under her eyes and emphasizing that weird glazed look she gets when she’s trying to convey deep thought. Like all the Campion actresses before her — Holly Hunter, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman — Ryan gives an almost entirely physical performance; Campion likes her actresses consciously inexpressive, so that she can work with their bodies and the way shadows play across their faces.
Similarly, Mark Ruffalo fills the Harvey Keitel role of the powerful and possibly dangerous man who leads the heroine further into herself than she would otherwise have gone. As the crude detective Malloy, who prides himself on “being whatever you want me to be” in bed, Ruffalo strikes an effective balance of machismo and tenderness. Like other sexual knights in Campion’s work, Malloy knows exactly what Frannie needs, and Frannie gratefully plays right along with him. The fact that he might be the killer who’s been going around “disarticulating” local women only adds to Frannie’s playing-with-fire pleasure. Campion works hard to steam up their encounters, but the scenes have a queasy, doom-laden undercurrent that cuts off arousal; we are distanced and watching two people in the throes of their own private bad obsessions.
The actual plot motor is sort of goofy on the face of it, as it was in Moore’s novel; but, of course, neither Moore nor Campion is interested in the “story” so much as the tangled emotions that arise from it. Frannie has seen (explicitly, in the unrated version of the film) a man in shadows getting orally pleasured by a woman who later turns up “disarticulated”; the man has a tattoo on his wrist, and so does Malloy. We’re given other red herrings, including Frannie’s student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), a large black guy obsessed with John Wayne Gacy, and Frannie’s neurotic ex-lover John (an uncredited Kevin Bacon), who putters around with his ugly little dog and stalks her (and when he gets her attention, all he does is whine about how he’s thinking about going on antidepressants). We also get, for no apparent reason, some flashbacks/nightmares about how Frannie’s dad proposed to her mom while ice-skating (complete with the Freudian visual of Dad’s ice-skates cleaving off Mom’s feet); and Frannie has been given a half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who serves little function other than bemoaning the lack of decent men while still sleeping with bastards. Meg and Jennifer: the masochism twins.
In the Cut was never going to be a mainstream hit (and decidedly wasn’t), so I have to wonder why Campion and/or Moore altered the ending of the book, which panned out pretty much the same as the movie does, only without the redemptive gunshot and final reunion. (The book ends with the narrator hoping she bleeds to death before her killer returns to disarticulate her.) The movie’s finale makes it seem like just another conventional Skinemax thriller (though Campion, true to her calling as a stubborn artist, mutes the redemptive act of violence). I came away from In the Cut feeling the same way I did after all of Campion’s other films: not quite sure what I had seen or whether I “liked” it, but certain that I’d seen something quite out of the ordinary. Should a movie be penalized for failing to be something it never tried or aspired to be? Perhaps the marketing is to blame, or the hype surrounding Meg Ryan’s nudity. Once again, Campion has given us a work that is its own willful beast, unshackled by genre (except for the sell-out ending). I can’t really argue with those who didn’t like it. I can’t say I “liked” it either. But I’m still not giving up on Campion.