Most everyone who has taken a creative writing class has heard a teacher pass along Anton Chekhov's advice that if a gun is displayed early in a work it must be used sometime before the story is concluded. Writer-director Jane Campion and her co-writer, novelist Susanna Moore, mysteriously refuse to follow that advice. Early in their current film, In the Cut, their heroine is pointedly shown a gun, and for the rest of this increasingly aggravating movie we keep waiting for her to get hold of it and use it to defend herself against a bad guy. But Campion and Moore are above Chekhov's advice and rather distantly short of his artistry. The whole scene with that initial gun, like a lot of other details in this disappointing film, is entirely pointless.
In the Cut stars Meg Ryan as Frannie Avery, a high school English teacher with a Looking for Mr. Goodbar sensibility. Scenes that repeatedly hearken to the love-at-first-sight meeting of Frannie's parents emphasize that she's a yearning romantic and that she's the damaged product of a broken home. Frannie wants what she doesn't even believe in, a life that her parents never had. She's the kind of woman who has approached 40 without finding a relationship. Her boyfriends have never worked out even though there have been plenty of them and the sex has been early and often. Most recently Frannie has been dating a medical intern (Kevin Bacon) who is either seriously disturbed or so sleep-deprived he lacks good sense. It's no wonder that she's dodging him. Maybe Frannie has her eye on Cornelius Webb (Sharrieff Pugh), a hunk of an African-American student in her creative writing class. She's been tutoring him after school in a sleazy bar, and she can't be blind to the way Cornelius looks at her. We get her sexual neediness underscored and followed with exclamation points when she goes to the bar restroom and spies on an episode of oral sex. That she hides in the shadows to stare would fill volumes in the notebook of the shrink she doesn't have.
Then all of the sudden Frannie is inside a thriller. The woman who was murdered and dismembered in her neighborhood turns out to be the woman Frannie watched providing oral sex to a mystery man. That fact is asserted, but it's never clear how such a connection could be established. The man on the receiving end of the oral sex has a tattoo on his wrist identical to the one on the wrist of the homicide detective who shows up at Frannie's apartment to see if she knows anything that might help him solve the case. Sgt. Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) thinks there's a serial killer on the loose. He also instantly identifies Frannie as a woman he can talk dirty to. He invites her out for a drink and in the second sentence after placing their orders he begins to describe in the most explicit detail what parts of his body he would like to use to perform pleasing sexual acts on appropriate parts of her body. Shortly later he does just what he's promised, and Frannie is so amazed at his skill she has him tell her exactly how he was taught by an older woman to use certain parts of his body to perform pleasing sexual acts on appropriate parts of her body. All this describing gets the policeman and the school teacher so hot and bothered they start all over again.
But, of course, we do have to worry about that serial killer. Victims begin to stack up, including Frannie's sad-sack half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who lives above a lap-dance bar but doesn't seem to work there. We don't know what Pauline does, except that she seems to have even more sleazy sex than Frannie. But, then, nothing in this film makes any sense. Since Malloy is a very reasonable suspect for being the killer himself, we have no idea why Frannie keeps welcoming him into her body. We learn at the beginning that Frannie is working on a book about slang, but we have no idea why this is relevant. Frannie is fascinated with the work of a writer who posts poems on the subway, but we can't unravel the purpose of this detail.
And so it goes. We finger the killer early on because it can't be anybody else. And otherwise the film is a mishmash of unconnected information. This is a shame and a surprise. Campion has done excellent work previously in The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. And Meg Ryan has never given a braver performance. She's so good here, you could imagine an Oscar nomination if the movie weren't such a mess.
- Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) and her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) talk about life, love and the pursuit of sex in Jane Campion's thriller, In the Cut.