Jane Campion's new movie, "In the Cut," strikes a balance between art and commerce.
It has many commercial ploys, from murder-movie violence to Meg Ryan's nude scenes. Yet there's no mistaking Ms. Campion's seriousness as a cinematic stylist. Grim and sordid though it often is, the film has a steady flow of visually absorbing images. It's an art movie for the masses, you might say - although it remains to be seen if either cinephiles or entertainment seekers will embrace it.
Ryan plays Frannie, an English teacher who's jolted when a murder victim is found near her New York apartment. Perhaps recognizing a penchant for danger in her own personality, she gets sexually involved with Malloy, a detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the case - and who might be the culprit himself. She grows still more disturbed when her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is also killed.
Also present are ambiguous characters who may be red herrings or murderers: a former boyfriend of Frannie's who's now a surgeon; a current student of Frannie's who writes an essay about a serial killer; and Malloy's partner, a cop who's a lowlife even by "NYPD Blue" standards.
With so many narrative gimmicks, "In the Cut" would seem like standard Hollywood stuff if not for Campion's creative filmmaking - and Ryan's performance. The star of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" broadens her career by playing an utterly unglamorous character in an utterly unglamorous way. Ryan reportedly wanted to play Sylvia Plath until Gwyneth Paltrow took over the project, and while Paltrow is persuasive, Ryan's gritty acting here suggests she would have been even better.
Also convincing are Leigh as Frannie's sister, Ruffalo as Malloy, and Kevin Bacon as the surgeon.
But the film's main power comes from Campion, who also wrote the screenplay with Susanna Moore, author of the (even grimmer) novel on which it's based.
Campion has had misses ("Holy Smoke") as well as hits ("The Piano") in her offbeat career. The profits of "In the Cut" may determine whether she'll get to work with a top Hollywood star like Ryan again in the foreseeable future.
• Rated R; contains sex and violence.