Cut to the chase: Women in lust and jeopardy

Call me a perv (I'll answer), but I've never had a desire to see Meg Ryan naked. Maybe it goes back to when I was punished for playing doctor with the girl next door, but I no longer think of girls next door as sex objects. And Ryan's got the girliest-next-door image since Doris Day.

She changes that image in In the Cut, or at least updates it to what girls next door are really like in the 21st century. Her Frannie Avery, an English teacher living in lower Manhattan, is a sexual being, though not as sexual as her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nymphomaniac– or is that "free spirit"?

In the Cut is a woman-in-jeopardy movie, one of the few directed by a woman– and that makes all the difference. Jane Campion, who adapted the script with Susanna Moore from Moore's novel, shows great appreciation for what frightens a woman, what turns her on, and how closely related they sometimes are.

Most male directors who make this kind of film are thinking more from the viewer's perspective– especially the male viewer– than the protagonist's. Campion understands both but ultimately falls down on some of the story's thriller aspects.

One night in the dark hallway of a club, Frannie sees a young woman giving a blowjob to a man with a tattoo on his wrist. Later that night the woman is murdered and "disarticulated." Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), a man with a tattoo on his wrist, comes investigating. He may be the man Frannie saw, but he denies it when she tells him. Ordinarily you can rule out anyone who's so obvious so early, but this is not an ordinary thriller.

Frannie is able to overlook the danger because the sex is good, or maybe the sex is good because of the danger. She's also being stalked by her last lover, John Graham (an unbilled Kevin Bacon), who "played a doctor in a soap. Now he's studying to be one."

Because there's a fine line between their dates and interrogations, Malloy is often accompanied by his partner, Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici), who hasn't been allowed to carry a gun since he pulled one on his wife, "to scare her."

If you're going to generalize, in Campion's New York all men are crazy, all women are vulnerable, all streets are dark, and anyone might be a serial killer, even Frannie's student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), who turns in a blood-trimmed paper defending John Wayne Gacy's innocence.

Alfred Hitchcock believed in creating suspense by giving the viewer all the facts. Mystery, he said, is not suspense, but an intellectual puzzle. Campion takes the opposite tack, with diminishing returns.

In retrospect, there's a terrible mistake when someone gives away the killer's identity, but it's not picked up on. Many viewers will guess it ahead of the characters, most of whom are too busy acting suspicious to give it any thought.

In the Cut is still worth seeing for its atmosphere, given a uniquely feminine perspective though Campion's lens, and for the chance to see Meg Ryan grow up. In her scenes with Jennifer Jason Leigh it's often possible to forget which one is the actress and which the movie star.