Jane Campion guides Meg Ryan through a stunning career transformation In the Cut.

Ryan's Hope 

Jane Campion guides Meg Ryan through a stunning career transformation In the Cut.

Remember that silly-little-girl version of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, snuffling "I'm difficult!" through a charming tantrum? Meet Ryan's new incarnation in the psycho-sexual thriller In the Cut. Post-Crystal, post-Hanks and even post-husband Dennis Quaid (toward whom this performance plays almost like revenge), she's an actress reborn, birthday suit and all. That's half the delight: She's actually acting (and definitely acting out) rather than relying on ditzy shtick for the umpteenth time. Here, she demands the love with feral intensity -- perhaps influenced by Halle Berry, who recently snagged a fancy trophy for performing what was essentially a porn scene. Whatever the catalyst, Ryan's cathartic performance burns with a rare and passionate veracity.

The other half of the delight comes from director Jane Campion, whose sensualistic eye and scabrous heart infuse In the Cut with guts. The celebrated director of Sweetie and The Piano has been shouting the same theme over and over for years -- boo-hoo, it's tough to be female. Here, her trademark histrionics are replaced by a steady resolve that finally feels grown-up.

Ryan plays Frannie, a prim New York writing professor whose life goes mad when a chunk of a recently slaughtered woman lands in her garden. At the same time, after meeting in a skanky café with her disturbingly impassioned African-American student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) and catching a prolonged glimpse of lurid carnality in a back room, virginal Frannie becomes acutely aware of heterosexuality. Rather than doing the obvious blonde-on-black cliché, though, she heads home to an interrogation from Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo). He enjoys prying her open, and she begins to enjoy it as well.

Frannie's half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lives above a strip bar called the Baby Doll and laments a doomed romance with her married psychiatrist, encourages Frannie to pursue her attraction to Malloy. While the murders of women continue around the city, Frannie's obnoxious ex, John (Kevin Bacon), camps out uninvited in her apartment, becoming an increasingly wretched presence.

Based on the novel by Susanna Moore, who cowrote the screenplay with Campion, In the Cut plays out as a multiple mystery. Besides the horror of the seemingly random murders, we're also treated to luminous yet troubling flashbacks of the courtship of Pauline's mother. (And is the conspicuous tattoo worn by Malloy's Cro-Magnonlike partner, which Frannie also sees during the movie's shadowy opening blow job, a red herring?) Above all, though, is the mystery of Frannie's abandon; after she's brutally mugged, Malloy re-enacts the event as a seduction ploy -- and she loves it. Before long there's a lot of praying -- or is it preying? -- at the altar of sex.

Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe deserve praise for turning familiar New York into a dark, delirious wonderland, with nearly every shot rendered as gritty poetry. From her more primitive days of short film to her most recent feature, Holy Smoke, Campion has always enjoyed showing us women pissing. Here, pissing has turned to pissed-off, and most of the moaning is now of the saucy variety. Simply, In the Cut is the work of an artist very near the peak of her powers.

Focusing those powers through Ryan is the movie's ace. With her lank haircut and fuck-me attitude, one almost forgets that this is Ryan. She looks and behaves much like Nicole Kidman, who rode out Campion's Portrait of a Lady and developed this project before bowing out of the lead. But this is more than mere copycatting. Ryan has taken a quantum leap beyond the funny fake orgasm in Rob Reiner's diner years ago, dramatically expanding her repertoire. Onscreen, she's no longer "difficult." Rather, she's gloriously easy.

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