Faux-moody college girls everywhere flock to Sylvia Plath, and when they’ve finished checking out the Gwyneth Paltrow bio-pic they can still catch more of the same “every woman adores a fascist” brand of victim-worship in Jane Campion’s In the Cut. This skeevy little erotic thriller feels like a Basic Instinct knock-off washed through some half-baked political surrealism. Frumpy New York schoolteacher Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) becomes embroiled in a torrid affair with sleazy Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) during a series of brutal murders in her East Village neighborhood. Disinterested in the genre requirements of a thriller, Campion instead dwells on the dirty talk and sexual experiments of her two leads. The never-ceasing handheld camera deliberately blurs these seedy schoolgirl fantasias, and the results are less dreamy than distracting.
Joyless seduction scenes are set amid one of the ugliest portrayals of urban squalor in recent memory. No matter how many gusts of autumnal leaves or beautiful shots of hands and necks Campion poetically lingers upon, it all feels like tacked-on pretense. In the Cut is basically a sadistic potboiler with a strident post-feminist slant. The point boils down to some abstract concept of girls liking to fuck, and liking swarthy men with pimp moustaches. That element of danger might have been fascinating if Ruffalo didn’t come off so completely unappealing in every way, looking like a greasier Tom Selleck, or maybe a cleaned-up Ron Jeremy. My manhood wasn’t threatened by Ruffalo’s boorishness, but my sense of style was offended. He’s a revolting slob, she’s a dullish dope, and round and round they go ripping off each other’s clothes and occasionally stumbling over a crime scene’s severed head.
In the Cut fails to communicate the same complexities about men and women that Campion has more deeply explored in her earlier films. No matter how dumb the rote serial killer mystery is, or how embarrassing the raunchiness plays out, the film may have been saved by a strong central performance. Meg Ryan replaces her done-over trademark peppiness with blank-faced introversion. She’s wan and inscrutable; a movie star called upon to act and left hanging in the crossfire. Ryan’s career anxiety trumps Frannie Avery’s sexual identity crisis, and renders In the Cut an endurance test. I’d rather watch crash test dummies any day—it’s shorter than this drawn out two-hours and the results are just as inevitable.