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21.2.04

In the Cut (DVD) — by Todd Babcock

Sometimes films come along that have the noblest intentions, where you can actually see what they were trying for, even as they miss their mark. Films like these are the most difficult to evaluate, or more to the point, to come to some agreement on because there are those who will apologize for them and some who won't. Some years back, a writer friend and I got into a vicious discussion concerning the film Higher Learning (1995): I thought it a bit pretentious and heavy-handed, and he was thrilled with it. After many hours of debate and many tangents, we came to a ceasefire based on the understanding that he could see what director John Singleton was attempting, while I stated that I didn't pay ten dollars for someone's film school project.

Well, much time has passed since then, and I have come to realize that we are all paying for director's film school projects. It's just a matter of who gets the better grade. Or, maybe more to the point, any filmmaker worth his weight in celluloid is going to try and do something they don't know how to do or step beyond what they know, and we should be forgiving of their failures and missed marks. Having actors dance around product placements in connect-the-dots filmmaking may be good for marketing and budgets, but it certainly doesn't open the door for any type of inspiration. (Please refer to the section The Ashton Kutcher File for reference.)

So, now, yes, I have softened to where if I see a step of growth and risk in a film that flops around in search for something great, I will gladly relinquish my tight-fisted ten spot in hopes that this is a step in the right direction. Mind you, many films that don't find their mark never even see the blessed green light of distribution, so there is a filtering process that probably eliminates more movies that we would actually want to see over much of the predigested dreck we are submitted to year round. (Once again, please refer to the aforementioned file.) Don't even get me started on the world of television, where I read pilot after pilot that I think are ingenious and groundbreaking only to see pick-ups for those that fill x, y, and z of placement on the network ingredients (I'm sure Coupling made perfect sense on paper in light of the coming Friends departure). But I digress.

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In the Cut (2003)

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With this caveat, I highly recommend seeing In The Cut (DVD new release) by Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke) for all the things it does achieve in light of its obvious shortcomings. Based on the book of the same name (by Susanna Moore), In The Cut is the story of Franny Thorstin (Meg Ryan) a lonely, yet independent teacher/writer who becomes entwined with a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) when a body part of a victim she had recently seen in a bar gets discovered in her garden. The plot seems pretty basic: there is a serial killer about and Franny gets involved with the detective who she suspects could be the very murderer himself. Yet, with such a simple premise, we somehow lose sight of the plot altogether.

Many times I have left the theater dismissing a film because of its overladen special effects. Apologies are made in excess because, well, that's why people went in the first place. This argument had been employed to the aid of recent Matrix sequels, Daredevil, and any number of F/X spectaculars. I would make the argument here that the acting and environment of In The Cut are its special effects. While the murder plotline and its conclusion fade to the background, Campion and her cast keep you so completely immersed in their tangible world that you find yourself not minding. It's only when the film begins to reach its conclusion that you realize that you are watching a thriller at all. That is a testament to the work of Ryan and Ruffalo, both of whom take daring steps forward in their acting careers.

Much has been made of Meg Ryan taking her clothes off in this film and the graphic nature of the sex it depicts. I would argue that the bolder step was the stripping down of Meg Ryan herself: Meg Ryan the corporation, the quirky romantic, America’s Meg. Here she is plain, sometimes harsh, and yet more beautiful than I've ever seen her. Campion has inspired devotion from these two fine actors, to the point that the trust bleeds through every moment. If this is where Meg Ryan has decided she can go, or must, I will gladly pay for her evolution. It's a bold move any way you cut it and not an altogether easy one when one considers what she has to lose.

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