In the Cut

(2003) *** R
118 min. Screen Gems. Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh.

The revitalization of traditional genre films requires the touch of an accomplished artist. With her new film In the Cut, Jane Campion lends her distinctive voice to the mystery-thriller, creating a potboiler that runneth over. The film adapts Susanna Moore's bestselling novel, and on one hand, the results often play like gussied-up trash (with the murderer an afterthought MacGuffin); on the other, In the Cut's intriguing dissonance and cultivated ambiguity of character admirably reveals new dimensions to a form audiences continue to demand.

In a particularly concerted effort to stretch beyond her typecast persona of perkiness, Meg Ryan headlines the film as Frannie, a somewhat ineffectual writing teacher drawn into a Manhattan murder mystery, partly by her own proximity to the brutal crime and partly by the brusque but sexy detective (Mark Ruffalo) who interviews her. Their tentative courtship makes up the open-heart surgery that is the film, powered by fiery passion and doubt of the other's wrongdoing (and yes, much-discussed nude scenes for Ryan). Among others in the margins, Kevin Bacon lurks as Frannie's dysfunctional ex-boyfriend, and Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her straight-talking, layabout sister.

In the squeaky, computer-chip voice of a shimmying mouse tchotchke, Campion locates the old Partridge Family chestnut "I Think I Love You" (you know, "so what am I so afraid of?"). In the film's allegory for modern relationships, fear of murderous impulses represents fears of fickle infidelity or claustrophobic loss of control or individuality to the throes of an all-consuming relationship. The recklessness of passion and male dominance are represented (partly by way of Virginia Woolf) in a blood-red, phallic lighthouse that provides a climactic setting for our popcorn thrills. Sex, as Jane's Addiction once wailed, is violence.

Campion crams In the Cut with heaps of paranoia and atmospheric suggestion (it's one of the most imaginatively photographed films of the year), from the focus games initiated in the opening credits sequence to fleeting, peripheral glimpses of red-swathed action to a running poetic commentary Frannie finds in public buses (like Dante's lines "I found myself in a dark wood/For I had wandered off the straight path"). Living in the skin of her character, Ryan de-glams better than Nicole Kidman (who was originally to play the role) and shows no fear of her character's occasional foolish, petty gestures. At its most basic level, In the Cut is a lousy thriller, preposterously predictable; even though this violent, eccentric film may repel in the short term, In the Cut lingers in the mind, and begs closer examination.

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