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(2003) (Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: After entering into an affair with a homicide detective who's investigating a series of nearby murders, a wary teacher begins to wonder if perhaps he might be the killer.
Frannie Avery (MEG RYAN) is creative writing teacher who's fascinated by everyday words, sayings and phrases, so much so that she seems to have forsaken romance in her life. Perhaps that's also due to her former boyfriend, John Graham (KEVIN BACON), being so obsessed with her every move that he's practically stalking her.

Her world changes when she's out with one of her students, Cornelius Webb (SHARRIEFF PUGH), who's writing a paper arguing the innocence of serial killer John Wayne Gracy. While looking for the bathroom, she sees a woman performing a sexual act on a man whose only distinguishing mark is a tattoo on his wrist. Not long afterwards, that woman is found brutally murdered.

Homicide detectives Giovanni Malloy (MARK RUFFALO) and Richie Rodriguez (NICK DAMICI) arrive on the scene and ask Frannie what she might know about the crime. Although she's unable to provide any information, Frannie is inexplicably drawn to Malloy, a point that her half-sister, Pauline (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH), says she should act upon.

Frannie does, and soon the two begin a torrid love affair. Yet, as more murders occur and the investigation continues, various developments and behaviors soon have Frannie wondering if someone she knows - even Malloy - might be the actual killer.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although she's appeared in a variety of parts over the years, actress Meg Ryan is probably best known for her role in Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally." To be more accurate, it's the scene in which she comically fakes an orgasm in a restaurant to prove to Billy Crystal's character that it can be done. It was America's cute and adorable sweetheart doing a bit of risqué comedy and immortalized the line, "I'll have what she's having."

All of that's now nearly G-rated in comparison with what Ryan does and shows in her latest film, "In the Cut." Not only is the "big-O" for real this time, but she also bares quite a bit in some rather graphic sex scenes and private moments. Call it finally being comfortable with her body, realizing she has to push the envelope to get noticed anymore in Hollywood, or what you will, but her performance in the film is certainly an eye-opener and then some.

Based on Susanna Moore's 1995 novel of the same name, the film is a purported "thinking man's" erotic thriller. Part serial killer-based suspense, part raw sexual nature, the film will certainly have men and women thinking. That is, about whether the film should be taken at face value - as something of an interesting but flawed and clunky work - or as something deeper at play that necessitates additional viewings to unlock and/or unveil the secrets and/or hidden meaning.

With only one opportunity to view it, my opinion of the film falls somewhere in the middle. As it unfolded - starting with a creeping rendition of "Que, Sera, Sera" (Whatever will be, will be) and continuing through all sorts of artistic if nebulous shots and most everything and everyone being slightly off kilter - I kept thinking of the films by the cinematic impresario of the bizarre, David Lynch.

Now, this picture - directed by Jane Campion ("The Piano," "The Portrait of a Lady") from Moore's adaptation of her own work co-penned with Campion - isn't as weird, wacky or ultimately confusing as much of that auteur's work. Yet, it contains some of the same tone and aura, all of which still leads me to believe that there's something more at work here than meets the eye.

Perhaps that would explain why characters do certain odd and inexplicable things or conversely don't do others. A great deal of both examples revolves around the unseen serial killings, resultant investigations and potential suspects.

The filmmakers introduce a number of potential evil-doers and related red herrings. Ryan's protagonist, however, seems dumbfounded when it comes to spotting and/or realistically reacting to them. At the same time, potential suspects could easily dispel her suspicion - when present - but fail or otherwise refuse to do so. Accordingly, any true sense of suspense - if desired, and that's debatable - is pretty much dampened.

If examined just on a superficial level, the effort seems heavily flawed from a mystery/thriller angle, while the climatic scene is rather clunky and not particularly unexpected or scary/shocking/disturbing.

On the other hand, the film obviously seems to represent Frannie's perplexed view of the world. That's symbolized by her mesmerized fascination with words and sayings, as well as shots where the outer fringes of the picture are purposefully blurred. Accordingly, one gets the feeling that perhaps the "flaws" are purposeful, symbolic of something deeper, or related in some way to her sexual nature and/or experiences.

Notwithstanding all of that, the performances are generally good. Ryan ("Kate & Leopold," "You've Got Mail") and co-star Mark Ruffalo ("Windtalkers," "You Can Count on Me") get down, dirty and raw in their sex scenes and certainly keep the film interesting.

Ruffalo plays his character in a purposefully nebulous fashion, while this is clearly Ryan's edgiest and most daring, if not remotely sympathetic or endearing of a role. That said, some might be of the opinion that grunge, raw sex and other unglamorous aspects are simply a substitute for real acting.

Supporting performances by the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Road to Perdition," "The Anniversary Party") and Kevin Bacon ("Mystic River," "Hollow Man") are solid, while those from Nick Damici ("Fast Horses," "Forever the Hurricane") and Sharrieff Pugh ("Cop Land," "A Bronx Tale") as additional potential suspects fall in line with the rest of the movie's "are they good or bad" elements.

Due to the apparent clunky nature and other flaws, viewers and critics alike are likely to have wildly divergent opinions regarding those performances along with the overall film. Truth be told, it does appear sloppy, defective, flawed and off-kilter. Nevertheless, I can't quite shake the feeling that I missed something or simply need to see it again for everything to make sense.

Edgy, artistic and occasionally mesmerizing, "In the Cut" is ether a failed and shoddy but fascinating effort, or one that requires deeper inspection and thought. The latter doesn't necessarily translate into a good film, especially on one's first viewing, however, resulting in a rating of just 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 17, 2003 / Posted October 31, 2003

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