[box cover]

In the Cut (unrated version)

The problem with men is that it's hard to tell the difference between the nice ones and the serial killers, and women are often desperate enough that they'll mistake the latter for the former. So maintains Jane Campion's fascinatingly muddled In the Cut (2003), a stylish evisceration of those blandly empowering Ashley Judd cop procedurals, which remains oddly watchable even after it becomes apparent early on that the director has no interest in offering up a compelling narrative to go along with her genre-tinkering. That's incredibly bad news for the folks that bankrolled this lunacy, but somewhat encouraging news for those who once held out hope that Campion would become one of the major directors of her era. That hasn't happened yet — The Piano hasn't aged all that well, while Portrait of the Lady and Holy Smoke were every bit as bad as they initially seemed — but In the Cut, at the very least, finds the filmmaker more imaginatively exploring the explosive, male-female sexual power-play that often gives way to a brutal kind of emotional violence, symbolized rather thuddingly here by an ongoing series of murders plaguing the Lower East Side neighborhood of English professor Frannie (Meg Ryan). When she's not compiling a list of contemporary street-slang for a book, Frannie trolls the local dive-bars with her promiscuous sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which eventually brings her into contact with NYPD Det. Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who's charged with investigating this current string of murders. Malloy believes Frannie might've seen something that could aid him in his pursuit of the killer, and he doggedly goes after her. Though Frannie is initially suspicious of Malloy, she reluctantly lets him into her life, and, eventually, into her bedroom, where the two slowly begin to fall in love. Unbeknownst to Malloy, the key piece of information she's withholding from him is her belief that she saw the detective soliciting oral sex in the basement of a local bar, which is a source of inexplicable arousal and, finally, disquietude for Frannie, who begins to suspect that her lover might be the killer. There are other suspects, including a John Wayne Gacy-obsessed student as well as a stalker ex-boyfriend played by a hilariously disheveled Kevin Bacon. But the focus remains mostly on Malloy, who may or may not be married, and may or may not have a violent side to him. Who knows and who cares? It's all too ambiguous to work as a whodunit, and anyone who's expecting that out of this film probably will have turned it off after 20 minutes. In the Cut is an unrepentant genre-exercise, much like De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), only this movie isn't remotely interested in bothering with the basic mechanics of storytelling that might make it accessible. Campion begins the film with an eerily discordant rendition of "Que Sera Sera," which plays uneasily over the dreamy, Eden-esque vision of Frannie's garden, setting the tone for the many false notes she'll be (intentionally?) hitting throughout the picture. The dialogue is overly stylized, consisting largely of heavy-handed observations about gender and sexuality, which is at odds with the grimy, though admittedly photogenic, naturalism of Campion's Manhattan locations. When uttered by Ruffalo's Malloy, the effect is like watching one of Lumet's hard-nosed cops adopt a psychiatrist's jargon, and engaging in tortured self-examination of their own sexuality. It's a disorienting experience, and it's handled pretty clumsily at times, with Campion ill-advisedly dropping in numerous pop songs that intrusively comment on the action. Meanwhile, phallic symbols — guns, lighthouses, etc. — clutter the film's already loaded metaphorical landscape. It's a mess, and it's certainly not a good movie, but it's still an intoxicating madness for those who've appreciated Campion's work in the past. And while few of the pieces come together, there's hope by film's end that this uniquely gifted director might be regaining her footing. If we're lucky, this is her Lost Highway. Columbia TriStar presents In the Cut in a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a rambling commentary from Campion and producer Laurie Parker, a lame "Slang Dictionary" featurette, and a brief "making-of" documentary. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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