Remember that silly little-girl version of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, snuffling "I'm difficult!" through a charming tantrum? Well, make it a point to greet Ryan's new incarnation in the psycho-sexual thriller In the Cut. Post-Crystal, post-Hanks and even post-husband Dennis Quaid (toward whom this performance almost plays like revenge), she's an actress reborn -- birthday suit and all -- and that's half the delight: She's actually acting and definitely acting out, rather than relying on her ditzy "wuv my cute widdle buns" shtick for the umpteenth time. Here, she demands the love with feral intensity -- who knows, perhaps she's influenced by Halle Berry recently snagging a fancy trophy for performing what was essentially a porn scene. Whatever the catalysts, though, this engaging surprise sure feels cathartic, and Ryan's performance burns with a rare and passionate veracity.
The other half of the delight comes from director Jane Campion, whose sensualist eye and scabrous heart infuse In the Cut with guts and glory. The celebrated director of Sweetie and The Piano has been shouting the same theme over and over again for years -- boo-hoo, it's tough to be female -- but really, how well has the world been listening? Perhaps the message bears repeating. Here it is delivered not with her trademark histrionics -- Sam Neill chopping off Holly Hunter's finger made me want to give Campion's whole worldview the finger -- but rather with a steady resolve that finally feels mostly grown-up and genuinely satisfies.
Ryan plays Frannie, a prim New York writing professor whose life goes mad when a chunk of a recently slaughtered woman lands in her garden. After meeting in a skanky café with her disturbingly impassioned African-American student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) and catching a prolonged glimpse of lurid carnality in a back room, virgin-esque Frannie becomes acutely aware of heterosexuality. Rather than doing the obvious blonde-on-black cliché, though, she heads home to a prompt interrogation from Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who obviously enjoys prying her open, which she begins to enjoy as well. Thus begins a smoldering attraction that quickly leaps to flame.
We soon meet Frannie's colorful, hippy-dippy half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works in a strip bar tellingly called Baby Doll, raves about "dick" a lot and wears a lazy tone of resignation: "Is a husband too much for me to ask for?" This while she's lamenting a doomed romance with her married psychiatrist. Despite her own failings, Pauline encourages Frannie to pursue her steamy attraction to Malloy, especially since Frannie's ex, John (Kevin Bacon), is an obnoxious creep set on "11." While the vicious murders of women continue around the city, John frantically obsesses over why Frannie won't baby-sit his ugly little dog and camps out uninvited in her apartment, becoming an increasingly wretched presence. Despite one useful proclamation from Bacon ("You don't know how guys think" -- indeed, secure relationships here are severely downgraded), the role is just a couple of shades shy of the rapist he portrayed in the rather terrible Hollow Man.
Based on the novel by Susanna Moore, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campion, In the Cut plays out as a multiple mystery. There's the horror of the seemingly random murders, with several red herrings to keep us guessing: In particular there's the conspicuous tattoo shared by both Malloy and his Cro-Magnon-like partner Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici), which Frannie first notes during the movie's shadowy opening blowjob. We're also treated to luminous yet troubling flashbacks of the courtship of the half-sisters' mother. Above all, there's the mystery of Frannie's abandon; after she's brutally mugged in the grimy street, the brutally frank Malloy employs a re-enactment of the event as a seduction ploy -- and she loves it. Before long there's a whole lot of praying -- or is it preying? -- at the altar of sex, tinged with compelling danger.
In nearly every aspect, In the Cut is a work impressively realized, and all involved deserve acc-laim. Even the nauseated nervousness of the song "I Think I Love You" is put to elegant use. At the helm, Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe de-serve additional lauding for turning tired old New York into a dark, delirious wonderland, with just about every shot rendered as gritty poetry. (Could have done without the scene where Malloy teaches Frannie how to use a gun -- yawn! -- but praise to the deer-wrangler for adding atmosphere.) From her more primitive days of short film to her most recent feature, Holy Smoke, Campion has always enjoyed showing us women pissing, a motif that truly endears her to the French, who love urination in their cinema. But in her overall delivery she really has come a long way, baby. Pissing has turned to pissed-off, and most of the moaning is now of the saucy variety. Simply, In the Cut is the work of an artist very near the peak of her powers.
Focusing those powers through Ryan is the movie's ace. With her lank hairstyle and fuck-me 'tude, one almost forgets that this is Ryan -- she looks and behaves so much like Nicole Kidman, who rode out Campion's Portrait of a Lady and developed this project, eventually bowing out of the lead. But this is more than mere copycatting. Let's just say that Ryan has taken a quantum leap beyond the funny fake orgasm in Rob Reiner's diner years ago, dramatically expanding her repertoire. Onscreen, she's no longer "difficult," but rather -- in the most confident, strident way -- gloriously easy.