There are plenty of critically acclaimed films about cops, sex, and violence, but few have as many actors at the top of their craft: In the Cut stars Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a brilliant, uncredited Kevin Bacon. Few are shot as beautifully as this: cinematographer Dion Beebe, who fills In the Cut with jewel tones and tableaux that look like baroque paintings, later won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha. In the Cut is rare and enchanting in that it is a sexy, at times macabre movie made by women about women.
This is a film about a serial killer, and director Jane Campion masterfully explores complex female themes alongside a story about women being dismembered. She portrays love between sisters, female desire, and what it’s like to live with the underlying knowledge that there are men who will prey on you and maybe even murder you just because you are a woman. She depicts the bonds people make and the rituals they enact to try to comfort themselves. She shows us loneliness and the self-hatred that sometimes rises from loneliness. Ryan’s subtle and compelling performance — as a high school teacher who lives next door to where a decapitated woman was found — captures all of this. Her character vacillates between confidence and doubt, calling her own sanity into question as she gets engulfed by the part-sensual, part-debased urge she feels toward the NYPD detective played by Ruffalo.
This film is symbolic of the unique and sometimes insurmountable obstacles faced by women actors. It was made during a period when Ryan attempted to transition from romantic comedies to dramatic films. When male actors shift from comedy to drama, they are often lauded. Ryan was scorned. “The reaction was vicious,” she recently told the New York Times. “I feel like that might’ve been the last movie I did.”
Ultimately, Ryan’s character succeeds in confronting her deepest fear, though she incurs more than a few wounds in the process. The last two minutes of the film, as she literally and figuratively finds her way home again, are among the most gorgeous moments of 21st-century cinema.