In the Cut (2003) and the novel In the Cut, from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
About two or three years ago, I was revved up to the sarcasm red zone when Ingmar Bergman, the octogenarian director of possibly the slowest movies ever made, mused that he was going to do one more movie, and it was going to be a thriller. What, I wondered, would Basic Instinct have been like if it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman?
I wonder no more. I have seen the movie myself. It is called In the Cut.
In the Cut as a thriller
On the thriller level, its most basic engine for forward movement, In the Cut is just another grade-B erotic thriller, filled with absurd coincidences, incredible character motivation, plot holes, and enough red herrings to feed Scandinavia for a decade.
Let me give you some examples, with a warning that I'm going to spoil the entire film:
1. Character motivation: Meg Ryan, a literature professor, is in a bar. She sees a woman blowing a man in the bathroom area. She watches. She doesn't see the man's face, but she clearly sees a distinctive tattoo on the man's wrist. It turns out that somebody was killed in the bar later that day. A detective shows up to question Meg about what she saw, if anything. She sees that the detective has the exact same tattoo as the man she saw in the bar the day of the murder, and she figures out that the woman giving the blowjob was the murder victim. We're not discussing coincidences in this section. I'm willing to buy into this for now. But here's what happens next (a) as Meg discusses the situation with the detective she does NOT say -"I did see something suspicious in the bar that day - a man with the murdered girl - he had a tattoo exactly like yours" (b) when the detective asks her on a date, she accepts, despite the fact that at that point, based on the odd tattoo, he appears to be the serial killer.
At the very least, Meg would have resolved the tattoo issue to her satisfaction before going out with the guy. Why didn't she? Well, that's obvious to you, isn't it? Because if she had acted like a person instead of like a movie character, there would have been no movie. Either (a) the detective would have had no plausible explanation, in which case Meg would certainly not have gone out with him and would have reported the information to another policeman, or (b) this bit of info would have alerted the detective to the identity of the real murderer. From what we discover later, he would have known exactly who the murderer was, since he knew only two people had that tattoo. Want them to act sensibly? Can't do that. No more movie.
2. Credibility. At one point in the movie, Meg is mugged. She suspects that the mugger was her detective/lover, and that the mugger may also be the murderer. At another point in the movie, Meg loses something from her charm bracelet. Later on the two events coincide when Meg goes through the detective's coat looking for his handcuff key (after some fantasy sex) and finds the missing charm. His explanation, "I went to West Broadway and looked around after you were mugged. I found the charm, and I've been meaning to give it back to you." Meg doesn't believe this ridiculous explanation, and leaves him handcuffed. The explanation could not be genuine. He didn't know the exact spot on West Broadway where she was mugged. Even she would not have been able to pin it down closer than a block. There's no way he could have known where to look unless he was the mugger. What are the chances of finding a little charm from a bracelet in a busy street in Soho at night without knowing the exact spot of the assault?
"OK", you're thinking, "the explanation could not be genuine, and Meg did not believe it. So the plot was actually tight, correct?" Wrong. The cop was NOT the murderer or the mugger. It finally turns out that we and Meg are supposed to believe that story about finding the charm. The complete absurdity of the story was just a plot device to make Meg believe that he was the killer, thus driving her into the hands of the real killer. It's a plot device that worked for the moment, but made no sense after the remaining details were revealed.
3. Red Herrings. Get this. Meg saw the murderer with the victim in the bar, right? The plot offers us not one, not two, but three red herrings, in an orgy of misdirection, and all three of the faux murderers could be placed in or near that tiny bar on that day!
I guess I'm probably belaboring a point which isn't that important in the big picture, so just let me summarize it. As a plot-driven thriller, this movie is at the straight-to-video level.
But the film is more than that. Much more, actually.
In the Cut as literature in convenient film format.
On top of the thriller is a very arty veneer of English literary conventions. Frankly, I didn't like this very much in a marriage with a mystery. Foreshadowing can be an effective literary device in some ways, but it's contrived by nature, and in a murder mystery foreshadowing simply adds more and more layers of gooey, unbelievable plot coincidences that stretch the audience's credulity past the breaking point. Some of the mood foreshadowing was effective when it was not directly plot-related, but there were other examples which ended up clumsy and contrived:
Yes, I know that grand literary works do things like this all the time but, as I said earlier, I'm not sure if this kind of "plot foreshadowing" belongs in a marriage with "mystery". The credibility cup overfloweth.
In the Cut as a lingering, Bergmanesque character study
Based on what I've written so far, you are going to be very surprised by what I am about to write. I was impressed by this movie, and am glad to have seen it. If I were a real movie reviewer using a system like Ebert's, I'd give it three stars and recommend it to interested audiences, flaws notwithstanding. The mystery engine sputtered, and the literary paint job chipped, but the ride was still a good one. The director, Jane Campion (one of only three women ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar) did something quite special with the material she had to work with. As a result, In the Cut is not just a grade-B erotic thriller with literary pretensions. Oh, I guess it is that if you want to be persnickety, but that's not important. What makes the film work is the mood it maintains, and the character study inside of it. The director did an excellent job on two things:
1) Since everyone in the film except Meg was a suspect in the murders, and she was a potential victim, she lived in a state of heightened paranoia. The director handled this beautifully, especially with music and editing. In scene after scene in this film, the movie was able to portray Meg's point-of-view very accurately, and to turn various innocent words and situations into implicit threats which raised the tension levels to nerve-wracking heights.
2) The one truly brilliant thing about the film is the portrayal of the battle raging inside of Meg between her desire for the detective (abetted by her loneliness) and her fear that he may really be a bad guy. Although the film may have taken her risk-taking to unrealistic levels, the actors and the director did an excellent job of portraying Meg's inner conflict, and the risks she was willing to take because of her hunger and her hypnotic sexual and romantic attraction to the cop. In fact those risks may actually have increased her desire, thus inducing her into a somnambulant walk into more risks. Each of us has done similarly foolish things when driven by lust or loneliness or both, then stood back from the circumstances later, in shock that we ever did such a thing. The film seemed to create an honest psychological study of a single woman alone in an inimical environment.
These last two factors led me to make my original observation that this could well be Ingmar Bergman's concept of a thriller. It even had distorted, black-and-white dream sequences!
Actually, given the dark and grimy feel of the entire film, a permanently creepy aura that surrounds the screen as you watch, it feels like a thriller made in collaboration between Bergman and David Fincher.
|Additional notes on the novel
"In the Cut", by Susanna Moore
(Ordering info from Amazon)
(Complete Spoilers Ahead)
It figures. As usual when one goes back to see how a movie dealt with the source material, almost everything that the film added or changed was negative. Almost everything that was good about the film was already in the book.
It is a good read, a short book (178 pages, big print) that moves swiftly. The sex scenes are graphic, the language uncensored, and the encounters are told from a female perspective. The author manages the mystery deftly, and the book would be fascinating for English major types who are interested in odd words and expressions. The last few pages of interior monologue are written with great dexterity and deliver a lot of emotional impact.
The only thing really wrong with the book is that there is a way-too-long circumbendibus which details the student's entire 7-page essay on John Wayne Gacy, thus grinding the otherwise rapid forward charge of the story to a complete halt. That essay is as long as the final scene in the lighthouse! Even after re-reading the book, I still couldn't figure out why the author chose to print that entire essay.
Here are a few of ways in which the book differed from the movie:
1) The final scene of the book did take place in the same lighthouse as in the movie, but it was not foreshadowed by an identical drawing on the teacher's blackboard.
2) The book did not feature any of that crap about the teacher's parents, the instant proposal, or the dream sequences.
3) The movie showed the killer re-enacting with Meg a distorted version of her own parent's courtship, even though the two plot threads emerged independently. There was no possibility of such an improbable coincidence in the book, because neither part of the silly ring lore was important. The teacher was not obsessed with her parents' instant courtship. The killer did not offer his victims an instant mock courtship, nor a ring, and there was no pseudo-marital relationship between them. (To be fair, the book's version of the teacher did obsess over some childhood incidents involving her family's maid. These thoughts gave off a strong insanity vibe, and the movie was wise to dump them, in the interest of making the teacher character reckless, but sane.)
4) The character of the teacher's half-sister was much more interesting and complex in the book, was not a loser, and was not even related to her. I can't figure out any good reason why the movie script made that woman Meg's half-sister, or why the movie made her a complete wash-out.
5) The red herrings were subtle in the book. They represented parallel threats more than possible suspects in the mass murders. The actor-turned-doctor was not a former boyfriend at all, or a stalker, just a strange guy that the teacher maintained a friendship with, although she should not have. The fact that she did so illustrated her recklessness. There was no real attempt to present him as an alternate possibility as the killer, except by subtle insinuation. The same general analysis would also apply to the student. The teacher's relationship with the boy illustrated her recklessness, and that was magnified in the book because their sexual encounter went much farther before she angered him by backing out, but he never really seemed to be an alternate murder suspect, despite his anger and his fascination with Gacy.
6) Most important of all, the book ends powerfully and appropriately, with the teacher's death. That scene is written as the interior monologue of a very intelligent woman who was increasingly detached from her own fate. It uses some literary references to reinforce her increasing sense of detachment from her predicament, but the technique is not prissy or artificial at all. It simply follows the same familiar patterns of thought she had used throughout the book, thinking about words and poems and quotations that applied to her situation. That ending delivers a devastating knock-out punch that leaves the reader in a state of shock. Very effective. That would have made a great ending for the movie, if Jane Campion had been daring enough to leave it in, and smart enough to deliver it cinematically.
7) In the book, the teacher's poor eyesight was a key to the credibility of her relationship with the detective. She did not know that his tattoo was identical to the one on the wrist of the man she saw in the bar. At that distance in that light, she could not clearly see the tattoo in the bar. She just knew that there was one. This is a small but important point. In the book's version, it's completely believable that the teacher agreed to date the detective. It was also completely believable when she didn't pursue her original line of questioning about the tattoo because she was simply being idly curious, so she lost interest when he didn't offer much information. It was no big deal. In the film, however, the teacher knew that the detective had the same tattoo. The audience saw both tattoos clearly when the camera was in her POV. Since the teacher knew it was the same tattoo in the movie version, it was not logical or credible for her to do the exact same things she did in the book.
8) In the book, there was no reason to believe with any certainty that the man getting the blow job was the murderer. He was just somebody who was seen with the murder victim much earlier the same day, in a completely different location from where the murder was committed. Therefore, even after the teacher began to feel that the detective was the man getting the blow job, she did not assume that he was the murderer. In fact, she assumed he wasn't. Her last words to the detective were, "It was you. The girl with the red hair. The tattoo. I saw it. But I never thought you killed her." On the other hand, the movie script allowed the audience (and the teacher) to assume that the blow-job guy must have been the killer, and also that the teacher saw the tattoo clearly. Therefore, she was dating the detective even after she suspected he was a killer. That fact certainly raised the teacher's recklessness to a new altitude in the movie version of the story, but that height was probably way past the tree line of credibility. The book's version, that she was having sex with a seedy lower-class guy who may have been the guy getting a blowjob, and who may have lied to her about other matters, struck the right note.
Although it is filled with curiously detached musings on various types of slang, the novel focuses the mystery much better than the film. The teacher got more deeply involved with and obsessed with the detective, even though she knew he was an unsavory character. Late in the game, when she became completely certain he was the killer, we could follow her logic momentarily, then realized almost instantly that she was wrong, and that she was heading into the lair of the real killer.
The novel also spends its time inside the teacher's head. She narrated the story. As a result, the extremely graphic sex scenes are presented entirely from a female character's point of view, and are actually written by a woman as well. That creates a fresh viewpoint which is probably very interesting to men as well as women. I found it fascinating.
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