In the Cut (2003)

2003-10-22 (Limited release)

Frannie (Meg Ryan) and her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) don’t look much alike, but they’re increasingly alike in their defiant, sad desires. Now that they’ve found one another, apparently years after their father abandoned their mothers, they share everything, from dresses to beds to secrets. “Broccoli,” explains Frannie as they head out the door one morning, “It means pubic hair.” If it doesn’t exactly make sense that Frannie’s instructing her sister on this point — Frannie’s an English professor, collecting slang for a book; Pauline lives above a New York strip bar called the Baby Doll Lounge — the underlying point is clear enough: Meg Ryan said “pubic hair.” She’s trying yet again to escape the pesky perky sweetheart image that’s dogged (and profited) her for so many years.

It’s a worthy goal, surely, and she’s a smart, convincing performer with all kinds of range. That Jane Campion’s In the Cut, which she and Susanna Moore adapted from Moore’s crisp novel, serves her so badly is worse than frustrating (especially as it opens with a cover of “Que Será, Será,” the song made famous by a similarly dogged actor, Doris Day). Frannie’s project takes her to a “seedy” part of town, in particular a bar with pool tables and dark corners where she meets her student, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), described by Pauline, not incidentally, as looking “like he wants to eat you!” Frannie takes out her notepad, Cornelius delivers a word — “meow.” Oh, she mutters, “This is valuable shit.” He pauses, then presses her about “People like you who think the brothers are guinea pigs.”

Before she can show that she’s embarrassed, Frannie spots an out, namely, a guy in a suit headed into the basement with a hooker-looking girl. She excuses herself and follows them downstairs, where she doesn’t see well, no faces, only the blowjob, his three of clubs tattoo, and her blue fingernails. And this provides the point of paranoid departure, as everything from this moment seems partly material reality and partly framed by Frannie’s anxious, fearful mind’s eye.

That’s not to say that earlier events might not also be functions of Frannie’s self-doubts, as when she’s being stalked by agitated, scrubs-wearing former lover John (Kevin Bacon), who drags his pipsy little dog along wherever he goes, or when she notes and encourages Cornelius’ peculiar interest in John Wayne Gacy, subject of his term paper (which will be turned in with blood drizzled over the pages). “I got a radar for the truth,” says Cornelius, “You know I got vision.” Frannie appears to believe him, as if the truth has to do with urban underbellies and aggression, the dreary clichés that trail black men in the movies.

But if Frannie is naïve and afraid, she is also yearning for ways to expand, to alter her own vision. (Pauline’s options are limited from jump: she’s in love with a married man, presumably a patron at the club, and willing to believe he’ll leave his wife for her.) Lucky for Frannie, I guess, a murder takes place near that very bar where she met with Cornelius, and “part of her body” is dumped near Frannie’s apartment window. The detective on the case, Malloy (the incredible Mark Ruffalo) comes by canvassing, asking go-nowhere questions and taking note of mundane details, the quotations she has tacked up to her wall (“You a writer?”), the literature on her shelves. And then he gives her a word, a frankly incredible word: “The body was disarticulated.” And with that, Frannie, so vulnerable and so loony, is smitten.

Her interest, indicated by her brief fingertip caress of Malloy’s business card, leads to risk-taking and more paranoid camerawork, skittery and unfocused; cinematographer Dion Beebe’s offbeat composition makes the movie more interesting than its plot warrants (if you can’t see the killer coming a mile away, you need to get out more, much like Frannie, apparently).

Their affair proceeds as the steamy-seeming trailers suggest it will (in the interest of promoting Ryan’s “breakout” self-exposure), all naked flesh and heavy breathing, with some abusive initial language at a bar to make it seem dangerous. His butchy partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici), coppish inflections (“I got faggot hands, they’re soft”), circa-’70s mustache, and not-exactly-muscular frame make Malloy seem something of a throwback, a character from another era, perhaps another effect of Frannie’s limited experience, or perhaps his own. And this is the film’s most absorbing aspect, its attention to how desire shapes narrative and experience, the viewers’ no less than the characters’.

As if to underline the ways that desire is overdetermined, that is, as if to underline his own constructedness (is he the monster? is he the hero? does it matter when you’re a woman seeking love in this dark city?), Malloy shows his object of affection some photos of bloody body parts; then, when she’s assaulted outside a bar, he invites her to the station to look at “some pictures,” even though she’s said upfront that she didn’t see her attacker (he comes up from behind her, leaving her bruised enough that Malloy has to nurse her cracked face). This repeated act of looking and identifying, of reading accurately, might seem the film’s interest — the act, in some permutations, frames the sex scenes as well as the murder investigation scenes. Frannie doesn’t appear to learn from what she sees, however; rather, she descends into a difficult, incoherent intrigue, repeatedly getting into cars with men she doesn’t know, as if she hasn’t been living in New York City.

But if this notion is complex, In the Cut also works overtime to reduce the mystery and ambiguity, to haul you out of Frannie’s constriction, to let you see through and out and so feel assured, that you do have vision, that what you see is the truth. The fact that Cornelius’ own gift doesn’t help him much when he feels duped by the white lady and judged guilty by the cops might not feel relevant for you, as you look on from a distance. But next to Frannie’s increasingly silly girl-in-a-slasher-film antics, his case provides the film’s most pressing object lesson.