In the Cut
New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Portrait of a Lady") has discovered the seamier side of lower Manhattan in her new film "In the Cut." Her protagonist is the quintessentially American and perky star Meg Ryan, though here Ryan has darkened her hair and calmed her persona to a point close to catatonia. Her name is Frannie, she teaches English in what appears to be a community college, and collects poetic words and phrases, mostly from the Poetry in Transit subway cards
Frannie lives in a lower east side tenement above a palm reader, and not very far from her only friend, her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lives above a strip club. Both are alone, both are lonely, each one lusts for a man - almost any man will do. Frannie is being stalked by a former boyfriend (Kevin Bacon), but she barely has the energy to fend him off.
And then a new man comes into Frannie's life - Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, heavier, darker and calmer since "You Can Count on Me") - who is hunting a serial killer whose latest victim's dismembered body was found in Frannie's building's back yard. The two do a kind of courtship dance in which ultra-macho man and passive woman discover that they are a perfect fit, leading to some incredible sex.
But Frannie has her suspicions: is Malloy actually the killer? Campion, working from the novel by Susanna Moore (both collaborated on the script), throws out red herrings as though from a fish cart, until the climactic scene in which she and the killer - oh, but you're ahead of me. The film has more symbols than a quadratic equation, most of which serve no purpose other than to provide a moment's pregnant pause in the story, before it picks up once again.
This is not a bad film, in the way that "Beyond Borders" romanticizes horror; "In The Cut" sustains a mood and the cast is fine, with the exception of poor Kevin Bacon, who has been directed to act so far over the top that watching him is painful. But it tries to be two opposite things: first, a portrait of a depressed woman who knows that she chooses losers but does not know how to choose anything better and cannot find any peace within herself; and second, a police procedural/stalked-woman thriller with danger lurking around every corner. The two never really mesh as the film lurches from one to the other.
And here the dread hand of Lars Von Trier's 'Dogma 95' set of rules shows itself. Campion has chosen to follow the Dogma rules by shooting the film with a hand-held camera, using only available light - except when she doesn't, when she uses film lights and a camera dolly. So we have the worst of each style, neither contributing anything to the power of the movie. Things are needlessly dark (in real life our eyes respond to low light levels by adjusting so we can see), the shots are needlessly jiggly, and in very shallow focus; people and objects float in and out of focus as the camera moves. I am not opposed to the Dogma style; I thought "Celebration," "Mifune" and "Italian for Beginners" were wonderful. But to use it when it's not appropriate is foolish and only weakens the film.