In the Cut. Screen Gems presents a film directed by Jane Campion. Written by Campion and Susanna Moore, based on the novel by Moore. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexuality including explicit dialogue, nudity, graphic crime scenes and language). Starring Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kevin Bacon, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh, Nancy La Scala.

In the Cut

In the Cut, based on Susanna Moore's novel of the same name, wants to be a character study draped over a mystery/thriller. But it, ultimately, fails at both; it fails as a character study because it is too focused on the mystery to develop its characters, and it fails as a mystery because the story is so dumb. It is an admirable effort, but good intentions cannot suitably replace quality, something In the Cut sadly lacks.

Frannie (Meg Ryan) is a mousy English teacher living in New York City. Sexually unfulfilled, she undergoes an inner change when she witnesses a man recieving fellatio in a bar. Soon, she is sleeping with James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), a police detective investigating a serial killer. After some convincing by her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Frannie decides to continue seeing Malloy, despite her growing concerns that he may in fact be the killer. As their relationship intensifies, the serial killer continues his string of brutal murders, and an unhinged former lover (Kevin Bacon) stalks Frannie.

Watching In the Cut, I got the feeling that Frannie's transformation isn't really important to director Jane Campion (The Piano) and writer Susanna Moore. This seems odd to me, as I can't believe that anyone would really about the mystery aspects of the film. A handful of red herrings are dropped for no reason other than to mislead, and when the case is finally solved, the outcome is so unbelievable it is infuriating. In order to buy the twist, we are forced to choke down a number of strange contrivances and coincidinces. Actually, by applying the law of economy of characters ("No useless character is really useless"), the outcome can be predicted rather easily.

Having not read In the Cut's source novel, I cannot say how faithful the film is or how much had to be excised, but I can say this: a good bit more should have been cut. Characters appear and disappear almost randomly; supporting players like Frannie's stalker and her African-American student are hardly given anything of worth to do and should have been removed entirely. Also, Campion obviously expects us to have a different opinion of many of her characters than I did - Pauline is obsessed with her doctor boyfriend, and I guess we are supposed to think of her as, at worst, strange, but Pauline is a sick individual, much more disturbing than Kevin Bacon's stalker, who really comes off as more sad than scary. It is hard to feel pathos for a character as genuinely disturbed as Pauline is.

Ultimately, the only thing of interest in In the Cut is Ryan, who, in an attempt to shed her "good girl" image, sheds her clothes. She bares her breasts and behind, and simulates several different types of sex. Her performance itself is good, although not award-worthy by any means. She shows us Frannie's inner turmoil, but she never lets the emotions out when she should, leaving us feeling empty and unaffected. Mark Ruffalo is convincing as Malloy, but perhaps not in the right way. He succeeds in being an arrogant jerk, but I never found myself liking him in any way, which I think is the goal. Jennifer Jason Leigh is notable only for keeping her clothes on, something she is not known for doing. The best performance in the film belongs to Kevin Bacon, and it's a shame that Campion has no idea what to do with him.

The last visual of In the Cut is one I really admire. A perfectly simple shot, it has a kind of understated beauty that made me wish the rest of the film was as good as it could have been. In the Cut would have worked as a character study if that was its single focus, but the attempt to mix it up with a mystery/thriller is wrongheaded, and it leaves the film struggling to decide what it wants to be. Ultimately, it succeeds at nothing in particular, leaving us with an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.

© 2003 Matt Noller