IN THE CUT: A Secret American Giallo Masterpiece

Before THE POWER OF THE DOG, eclectic genre-hopper Jane Campion created an American Giallo.

By Zach Vasquez · @zach_vasquez · November 17, 2021, 7:00 PM EST
in the cut 2.jpeg
IN THE CUT (2003)

Although best known for her intimate character studies and lush romantic period dramas—such as her masterful awards darlings The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Bright Star (2009)—director Jane Campion is, in actuality, an eclectic genre hopper. The New Zealand filmmaker has dabbled in the biopic (Angel at My Table), quirky dark comedy (Holy Smoke), police procedural (Top of the Lake), and now, with her latest, the recently released The Power of the Dog, the western.

But it was by way of her most notorious film, 2003's In the Cut, that Campion placed one foot firmly into horror territory, although you would be excused for not realizing it. Sold by its distributor, Screen Gems, as a by-the-numbers murder mystery of the Ashley Judd variety, and utterly rejected by audiences and critics as a ludicrous late entry in the waning erotic-thriller genre, the film has far more in common with an older, sleazier and bloodier type of movie.

One wonders if, instead of In the Cut, Campion had titled her film The Disarticulation of Frannie Avery, it mightn't have been recognized for what it actually is: an American giallo.

Adapted from Susanna Moore's 1995 novel of the same name (Campion co-wrote the script with the author), In the Cut stars Meg Ryan as the aforementioned Frannie Avery, a buttoned-up, New York City English professor. When the severed head of a young woman whom Frannie had recently been seen in the vicinity of is discovered in the garden behind her apartment, she becomes entangled with the gruff but sexy lead investigator, Det. Malloy (Mark Ruffalo). Her impassioned affair with the brooding, at times brutish cop, awakens a long-dormant sexual hunger in her, even as she begins to suspect that Malloy may himself be responsible for the gruesome "disarticulations" of young women across the city.

in the cut1.jpeg

On paper, that plot could serve as the basis for any number of forgettable detective thrillers, but consider the specific elements at play that earn it its designation as a giallo: A razor blade-wielding psycho driven by pathological obsession. A witness who knows she saw something that can help identify the killer but can't quite figure what that something is (when Malloy tells Frannie, "Maybe you saw something you don't know you saw," he may as well be describing the majority of giallo plots). A repressed woman brimming with hidden fetishistic desire, a darkly handsome mustachioed police detective hiding his own dark secrets, and a lineup of seedy suspects and red herrings —including a cocky, hulking college kid (Sharieff Pugh) obsessed with John Wayne Gacy and a washed-up soap star-turned-hopeless med school student with a sexually traumatic backstory (a truly unhinged Kevin Bacon)—all of them floating around in a lush, but grimy dreamworld, a plane that operates not on logic, but pure emotive power. A lecture that Frannie gives on the use of stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse could be similarly applied to the way giallo—particularly those made by the master of the genre, Dario Argento—operate.

Speaking of Argento, for all that modern horror filmmakers love to ape and pay homage to his style (as well as his forebearer in giallo, Mario Bava) in their (over)use of red and blue party lighting, the cinematography in Campion's film—a mix of hazy, impressionistic soft focus and earthen tones with more startling bursts of bold primary color and neon, as well as frequent abrupt switches to stark black and white film stock—captures the feel, if not necessarily the specific visual look, of his work to a far greater degree.

in the cut 4.jpeg

So too do her bold formalist choices, including abundant use of speed ramping, slow motion, lens flares, and more. The use of these techniques in Frannie's imagined flashbacks to her parent's courtship while ice skating on a frozen lake—which become more and more sinister, building to a gruesome moment where her father uses the blades of his skates to slice off first her mother's legs, and then her head—recall those employed by Argento throughout his filmography, but in particular, the enigmatic visions of a public beheading placed sporadically throughout his underrated 1971 offering, Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

But Campion's film is no mere homage to Argento. In fact, it departs from his work—and most giallo films in general—in critical ways, particularly in its sexual and gender politics. In place of the, let's be generous and say retrograde, treatment of women found throughout those earlier films, we get Campion's unabashedly feminine, and indeed, feminist perspective.

I don't use the F-word as a catch-all in this case—the word itself comes up during a critical scene in the film, while the very foundation of feminist film theory can be noted during one particularly meta moment, in which Frannie sarcastically asks a student, "How many ladies have to die to make a good story?" (Their answer of "Three" will turn out to be the film's exact body count, at least when it comes to its women victims, which granted, is low for a giallo/slasher movie.)

What's so thrilling about this element of the film, though is that Campion isn't disavowing the genre she's chosen to work in, but merely looking at it from a new point of view, while still embracing the pulpiness and prurience of her material.

in the cut 5.jpeg

Compare this to Edgar Wright's recent stab at similar terrain with Last Night in Soho, which attempts to square the lurid aesthetic of Bava/Argento with a modern examination of violent patriarchal power dynamics. That film ultimately plays it too safe, coming off as neither salacious enough in its embrace of the former nor serious enough in its depiction of the latter to succeed. In contrast, Campion's film manages to be both.

However, middlebrow viewers tend not to want anything too salacious nor too serious when it comes to their entertainment, so it's hardly surprising that In the Cut was met with such ignominy. Upon release, it was savaged by critics and especially audiences, earning a rare F Cinemascore (a not entirely negative outcome given the handful of similarly interesting films it shares the honor with).

Even to this day, In the Cut is best known for being the movie that killed Meg Ryan's career. In this, it makes for a convenient scapegoat, as Ryan's star had been fading before the film's release, owing to her aging out of standard lead actress roles, as well as the negative public response to her tumultuous love life at the time. That said, audiences did roundly reject the idea of watching Ryan—most closely associated with light romantic comedies—engaging in such boldly explicit sex scenes (by Hollywood standards, at least). Reception likely would have fared better had the film been made with its original star and subsequent producer, Nicole Kidman, although it wouldn't contain the same sense of voyeuristic transgression that comes with watching Ryan—‘America's Sweetheart’—let her kink flag fly.

It shouldn't be lost on anyone that the reasons for the film's failure, as well as those behind Ryan's fall from public grace, are steeped in misogyny. In a way, it's fitting the film should fall victim to the same pathology at the story's heart.

Thankfully, In the Cut has undergone steady reappraisal over the last several years. New audiences continue to discover it, embracing it as the challenging work that is. Most of these critical reevaluations focus on its bonafides as a feminist take on the erotic thriller and film noir. It's past time for horror fans to also get on board this train it and embrace In the Cut as the secret masterpiece that it is.

Click below to stream In The Cut now: