Neil Young’s Film Lounge – In The Cut

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

IN THE CUT

6/10

USA (US/Aus) 2003 : Jane CAMPION : 119 mins

An ambitious art-movie/mainstream-thriller hybrid, In the Cut is a fascinating failure that falls awkwardly between two stools: too luridly, gruesomely melodramatic for highbrow audiences, but too artsy and slow for multiplex popcorn-munchers. This is the kind of thing the French do very well its easy to imagine, say, Isabelle Huppert in the central role of Franny, a late-thirties/early-forties literature professor in Manhattan whose entanglement in the hunt for a serial killer coincides with her sexual re-awakening.

As it is, Meg Ryan acquits herself well enough in a role originally intended for Nicole Kidman, who’s made a habit of exiting Manhattan-set woman-in-peril movies – Jodie Foster stepped into Kidmans shoes for Panic Room. But while David Fincher crafted a thumpingly effective, visually stunning thriller with enough cinematic intelligence to transcend its genre roots and plot-holes, Campion ends up with a great-looking movie thanks largely to Dion Beebes cinematography that’s watchable enough at the time, but in retrospect a very rickety concoction.

For the first hour, the film is absorbing and often dazzling as Campion takes us right into Frannys head: sublimating her sexual needs into her work, Franny is unusually receptive to her environment. She takes the time to read poetry-extracts on the subway, and is constantly scribbling quotations alongside street-slang sexual euphimisms for a book she’s writing. Campion presents a crime-ridden metropolis full of grace notes, epiphanies, the possibility of transcendence right from the opening scene, in which Frannys Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, underused) enjoys a petal storm in Frannys garden.

Both sisters are pleasantly surprised when the slightly frumpy Franny drifts into a relationship with Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, in Freddy Mercury moustache), the blue-collar homicide detective investigating a series of grisly murders in the locality. Though very different personalities, Franny and Malloys affair is an intensely physical one until circumstances conspire to suggest Malloy may in fact be the killer. As Franny struggles between passion and suspicion, events take a shatteringly tragic turn

Its at this point not long after the hour mark that the wheels start to come off the wagon. Campion has managed to sustain In the Cut as an intriguing, slow-burning character-study mood-piece, but when the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the thriller plot kick in, the director and her co-scriptwriter Susanna Moore (adapting her own novel) founders. The film increasingly resembles a throwback to 1970s liberated-woman-in-danger films like Klute, Eyes of Laura Mars and Looking For Mr Goodbar, tarted up with fancy visuals, poetry references, feminist undertones and shots of the American flag for that irresistible post-9/11 cheap gravitas. (Never mind the screeners brouhaha – the Motion Picture Association of America should seriously consider a two-year moratorium on the Stars & Stripes.)

The climax is especially clunky: Campion and Moore deserve credit for avoiding the usual heroic-male-saves-damsel-in-distress finale by having Franny do all the saving herself, but the means by which the hero is incapacitated (a sudden detour into S+M) smacks heavily of contrivance. And Frannys showdown with the killer is a badly botched affair leaving us with the moral that brainy women should consider gun lessons.

In the simple terms of whodunnit, however, In the Cut works the script conceals the culprits identity till the last minute, and does so without resorting to cheat devices (like having the killer too peripheral, or unseen altogether). The task of solving the mystery is complicated by an unlikely coincidence, but its not in the same league as the wild improbability on which Mystic River pivots. As a whydunnit, however, the film is unsatisfying the motives for the killing spree remain very muddy, ,though perhaps this is appropriate in a production whose visuals and sound-design hover so alluringly between the limpid and the opaque.

One element of the films look remain baffling the bizarre intrusion into so many shots of the boom microphone. The classic hallmark of low-budget carelessness, its startling to see so many boom-intrusions such an expensive, prestige major-studio production. But such is the frequency and severity of these maddeningly distracting intrusions (most blatantly when Ryan leans out of her apartment window to converse with someone below) you wonder whether they’re deliberate. In a film with a subtext (albeit gratuitous and undeveloped) about the proliferation of sexual imagery in language and visuals, could Campion perhaps be making some kind of point about phallic intrusion into Frannys world? Could she possibly be trying to inject what one character, referring to oral sex, calls a sense of cock?

23rd October, 2003
(seen 22nd October : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young