'In the Cut': Danger lurks in Campion's dark, murky world of sexuality

Jane Campion's "In the Cut" is a wildly uneven, disturbing and gorgeous movie, one you can't quite get out of your mind even after a couple of viewings. Set in Manhattan's East Village, an ominous fairyland where red graffiti flowers bloom on the sidewalk and petals fly like snowflakes in a secret backyard garden, it's a modern noir heavy with metaphor and atmosphere — and plenty of blood.

Make no mistake: Although it stars Meg Ryan, this is not a "Meg Ryan movie," and audience members who attend because they've enjoyed the perky actress's previous work may be horrified by what they see here. And Ryan's performance, though an impressive technical achievement, really isn't the reason to see the film. As Frannie, a lonely teacher and writer, Ryan has flattened herself out (like the limp shag hairdo she wears), drawn out her voice into a line, and made her usually lilting manner clomping and glum.

Movie review

"In the Cut," with Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh. Directed by Jane Campion, from a screenplay by Campion and Susanna Moore, based on the novel by Moore. 118 minutes. Rated R for strong sexuality including explicit dialogue, nudity, graphic crime scenes and language. Several theaters.
It's a thoughtful, careful performance, but we never quite find a link with Frannie, a reason to connect with her. (Someone like Julianne Moore, who can inject an electric spark into an otherwise cold character, might have been a better choice. And you can't help but wonder what the ever-surprising Nicole Kidman, who originally planned to play this role but later dropped out — staying on as producer of the film — might have done with it.)

Based on the 1996 novel by Susanna Moore (who co-wrote the screenplay with Campion), "In the Cut" follows Frannie as she becomes sexually involved with a detective, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), investigating a series of brutal murders in her neighborhood. Malloy is an enigmatic figure — a film noir staple — who may or may not be involved in the murders, and Frannie is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by him. Sex with him draws her into another world, erotic and intoxicating; walking the sidewalks with him takes her into yet another, far less appealing. The movie is thick with red herrings and double meanings; we're always sliding on the ice depicted in the film's puzzling (but beautiful) sepia title sequence, never quite getting our footing.

"In the Cut"
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Campion ("The Piano") is, as always, interested in female sexuality, and here it's infused with danger. But despite Ruffalo's fine performance as a sexually confident man who nonetheless knows he's not as smart as he'd like to be (he speaks as if without punctuation, a mumbly stream of words), the more interesting relationship here is between Frannie and her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The two share an uncanny physical resemblance, and a place on the edge of an emotional cliff. Something haunts these two, as they cling to each other as if for shelter.

Pauline, so vulnerable she can barely choke words out, is in love with a man indifferent to her. "You're a poet of love," Frannie consoles her.

Poetry and language pervade the film; particularly a prophetic line Frannie reads on a subway wall: "I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered from the straight path." But it's not the woods that are dangerous — a scene outside the city, in a glade, is the only one not infused with those throbbing splashes of red. Campion and director of photography Dion Beebe have created a dark, down-the-rabbit-hole world, sparkling with raindrops and blue light, laced with red roses and smeared with blood. It's not for everyone, but I couldn't take my eyes away.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com