After “ending world hunger” and “dodging paparazzo,” “playing against type” has got to be an American Sweetheart’s third-favorite hobby. So tip your Homberg to Meg Ryan for donning a mousy brown wig and wary glance in Jane Campion’s capital-E Erotic thriller In the Cut, based on the stream-of-consciousness whodunit by Susanna Moore. Ryan plays (all together now: “against type”) thirsty English professor Frannie Avery, a well-bred, would-be spinster with a fixation on strippers, street-walkers, and other creatures of the night. When a working girl from her local dive bar turns up dead, she comes under the scrutiny of delectable detective Giovanni Malloy (Italian and Irish, très New Yawk), sensuously portrayed by sloe-eyed Adonis Mark Ruffalo.
Though he’s a rough-and-tumble Bronx kid, and she’s a sheltered West Village writer, their class struggle on the streets gives way to a wholly different kind of scuffle in the sheets. But nothing gold can stay, apparently, and it isn’t long before this grittier “Dear Penthouse Forum” letter (“I never thought it could happen to me…”) quickly reaches its inevitable, paroxysmal breaking point. The homicide case heats up, and both players in this deadly pas de deux begin to eye their partners with increasing suspicion. The film’s tension waxes and wanes, but Ryan stays the course, playing Avery with restraint: her bristly, cool demeanor reminded this viewer of a cash-poor baroness ogling a juicy Christmas roast in a cozy butcher’s shop. She craves proximity—to frank dirty talk, risky public liaising, or grisly crime scene photos—but fears that which she desires most. Toeing a fine line between wallflower and bunny-boiler, her doe-eyes belie a deep, insatiable hunger, but you’ll never catch her licking her lips.
In the Cut has its share of cat-and-mouse clichés, but Campion’s penchant for gauzy close-ups and frenetic coverage exercise their own kind of alchemy, transforming the film from titillating late night cable staple into a claustrophobic meditation on power and sexuality. While the more lurid scenes between Ryan and Ruffalo have bogarted its decade-plus reputation, the film has aged (quite well, for some of us) into an unlikely record of early 21st-century urban paranoia. Shot on location in New York, it documents a sort of twilight time for our fair city: after 9/11, but just before the ever-accelerating gentrification of the first Bloomberg Administration. Campion front-and-backloads every scene with anxious energy, from the unending din of city traffic to the utter absence of human warmth. This wary eye on New York is an outsider’s view—not necessarily foreign, but quietly observant, peeping at a safe distance from some clandestine spot. Common sense and caution are the orders of the day here: your colleagues and neighbors, even the cop on the beat, are not who you think they are, so don’t get too close.