Campion enters the landscape of American filmmaking with mixed results. An intensely sexual exploration of the nature of desire in the guise of a murder mystery, film is highlighted by Ryan's change-of-pace perf. Story's unpalatable narrative holes and dramatic missteps hold sway over better qualities, spelling an iffy commercial future in most markets.

Jane Campion enters the world of suspense thrillers, as well as the landscape of American filmmaking, with mixed results in “In the Cut.” An intensely sexual exploration of the nature of a woman’s desire in the guise of a murder mystery, this high-strung adaptation of Susanna Moore’s bestselling novel is beautifully crafted and is highlighted by an arresting change-of-pace perf by Meg Ryan as an English teacher erotically awakened by a homicide detective. But the story’s unpalatable narrative holes and dramatic missteps will hold sway over the pic’s better qualities with most audiences, spelling an iffy commercial future in most markets.

Campion initially developed the project with Nicole Kidman as a starring vehicle for the latter, who subsequently withdrew but retains producer credit with Laurie Parker. Although Ryan makes the role of Frannie Avery entirely her own, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Kidman at times by the way Ryan looks here, just as it’s hard not to have flashes of previous Campion heroine Holly Hunter, Diane Keaton in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and Jane Fonda in “Klute,” one of Campion’s acknowledged touchstones for this film.

From the opening moments, as a dissonant version of “Que Sera Sera” plays over a “petal storm” in Manhattan’s East Village set off by ripe shades of yellow and red, it’s clear the story is going to be told through an intensely focused perspective. That the perspective is sexual becomes evident very quickly, as Avery (Ryan), who’s researching a book on New York youth slang, is caught up short when she descends the stairs of a local bar only to observe a man with a three of spades tattoo on his wrist being serviced by a young woman.

When Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) turns up to interview her about the grisly murder of a neighbor woman, Avery notices the same tattoo on his wrist. She also notices her attraction to this outwardly calm yet simmering man, who tells her gruesome details of the case and also contrives to ask her out for a drink.

The notion of a smart, cultivated and refined woman being put in touch with more basic instincts by a “real” working-class man has been dramatized countless times. And while many potential viewers may decide in advance that they don’t want to see one of their favorite cutie-pies in such a role, there is no doubt from the way Campion films and Ryan and Ruffalo perform that Malloy gets to Avery in a way that’s new and devastatingly arousing to her.

Approach to the erotics is clear and specific without being vividly explicit, although nudity is plentiful. Informing the new relationship with a disturbing element of tension is Avery’s fear that Malloy could be the murderer. Also on the short list of suspects is Malloy’s rough-talking partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici); Avery’s young writing student, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh); and her unstable former boyfriend, John (an uncredited Kevin Bacon), who’s desperately trying to maintain a place in her life.

Although Campion tries to keep a hand on the narrative dynamic, however unsteadily, her primary interests clearly lie in plumbing the erotic mysteries of the material and in elaborating the visual textures; as a result, whatever rewards the film provides stem from these areas and not from the story, which, in the end, is pure psycho-killer pulp stuff.

On the sexual side, a considerable number of scenes are devoted to intimate conversations between Avery and her libido-ruled half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose unhappiness and obsessions are perhaps too directly expressed in the dialogue and set up her too conventionally for victimhood. Aside from the sexual interludes with Malloy, several solo moments relate Avery’s struggles with the attraction she feels for the man who has pushed her further toward the wild side than she had previously imagined possible.

Working productively again with her “Holy Smoke” lenser Dion Beebe, Campion has layered the film with innumerable visual details that combine for an almost palpable atmospheric density. Pic exudes the feel of a hot, sticky summer; the actors’ faces and bodies are usually covered with a hint of moisture, and the short focal lengths frequently render the backgrounds and foregrounds — and even parts of centerframe — out of focus.

Visual approach is emotionally effective. But it also allows for some narrative cheating, beginning with the key early scene in which Avery spots the tattoo. In fact, Avery is standing outside a doorway a considerable distance from the eventual suspected murderer; it’s highly doubtful she could see such a tiny tattoo, which is shown onscreen in giant closeup, from that distance.

Later, when Campion becomes more obliged to play by the murder-mystery rulebook, the missteps become more egregious; all the various would-be suspects just happen to come by Avery’s apartment at opportune moments and Avery uncharacteristically allows herself to enter into a dangerous situation. Even if one has bought into the story initially, film ends on a sour, unsatisfactory note.

Although Campion ultimately fails to merge Avery’s inner mysteries with the external mysteries of the story, the quality of her work in pushing the actors toward this goal should not be underestimated. Quiet, thoughtful and never displaying a need to be liked, Ryan shows a tough, rigorous aspect of herself that’s new to films, not to mention a carnal side that’s forthright and realistic.

Going out on a limb himself, Ruffalo creates a strong impression with his soft-spoken delivery of often very frank dialogue, and is physically distinctive with his angular posture and sidelong looks. Chemistry between the two is potent.

Shot entirely on location, pic is suffused in the pungent, sometimes suffocating atmosphere of Lower Manhattan. Original score by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson is unsettling, while choice of source music is uneven in effect. Some stylized fantasy flashbacks relating to Avery’s parents are of questionable value.

While it’s clear what attracted Campion to this material, there is also more than a whiff of her desire to make an overtly “commercial” film after the flops of her two most recent pictures, “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Holy Smoke.” It’s doubtful fans of “The Piano” will embrace “In the Cut” but Campion’s sensibility here remains too defiantly non-mainstream to win over the masses.

In the Cut

U.S.-Australia

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems/Pathe Prods. presentation of a Laurie Parker production. (International sales: Pathe Intl., London.) Produced by Parker, Nicole Kidman. Executive producers, Francois Ivernel, Effie T. Brown. Directed by Jane Campion. Screenplay, Campion, Susanna Moore, based on Moore's novel.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor and Atlab color), Dion Beebe; editor, Alexandre De Francheschi; music, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson; music supervisor, Laurie Parker; production designer, David Brisbin; art director, David Stein; set decorator, Andrew Baseman; costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Ishii; supervising sound editor, Andrew Plain; sound designer, Peter Miller; associate producer, Ray Angelic; assistant director, Timothy Bird; second unit director, Laurie Parker; second unit camera, Nils Benson. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 8, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Frannie Avery - Meg Ryan Detective Giovanni A. Malloy - Mark Ruffalo Pauline - Jennifer Jason Leigh Detective Rodriguez - Nick Damici Cornelius Webb - Sharrieff Pugh
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more