`Cut': a slice of routine thriller

October 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the Cut is a disaster. Familiar to the bone, arty on the surface, it could serve as the doomed pilot for a nightmare TV spinoff: Law & Order: Literary Victims Unit.

Meg Ryan plays a college creative-writing teacher involved with an NYPD homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating the murder and mutilation of a woman in her neighborhood. Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano) and co-written by her and Susanna Moore from Moore's high-style atrocity of a novel, it applies a patina of word-play and symbolism and a pretentious visual technique over routine elements from any woman-in-jeopardy thriller.

Until she meets up with her street-dashing policeman, Ryan's character has never had a satisfying sexual experience. (She's haunted by her father's abandonment of her mother after a dazzling, abrupt romantic courtship.) Yet this sexy cop may be the killer.

The cast of supporting red herrings and/or potential victims include Kevin Bacon (with an unusually ugly Chinese Crested) as a former bedmate of Ryan's who can't move on, Jennifer Jason Leigh as the heroine's freewheeling half-sister and Sharrieff Pugh as a student fascinated by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Ryan compiles a dictionary of street slang and grows convinced that the "Poetry in Motion" series of subway placards contain hidden messages just for her, such as "Now/ Thinking back/On the course of my passion,/ I was like one blind,/Unafraid of the dark." But rather than sensitize us to nuance or make a game out of the proceedings, all this verbal frou-frou does is betray the movie's devastating self-seriousness and lack of subtlety.

The pseudo-subtext reaches its nadir when Ryan teaches To the Lighthouse and then finds herself face to face with the murderer at, yes, a lighthouse. The images waver in and out of clarity; their elusive shimmer turns Gotham into a seedy phantasmagoria and the shifting focus highlights details as they enter the vision of the heroine. It's a plodder's strategy masquerading poorly as virtuosity. Every supposed cinematic coup is ghastly. The worst comes when a sentimental ice-skating dream involving the heroine's mom and dad turns bloody.

Ryan has always been an underrated actress, but this isn't the role that will win her new respect. In effect, it's an update of the mousy book-seller or librarian who reveals herself to be an erotic hellcat as soon as she doffs her glasses. Today's best screen opening, The Station Agent, gets more mileage out of that concept by making a joke out of it. In the Cut would be campy if it weren't so inflated. It isn't even good for a snicker.

In the Cut

Starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Jane Campion

Rated R

Released by Screen Gems

Time 119 minutes

Sun Score *

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