A serial killer is supposedly on the loose terrorizing young, promiscuous females, yet, as far as I could tell, only two women were killed (and one, as Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) informs us, from a previous case a year or so earlier). My first thought: Gee, this killer ain’t very good at his job if he’s only got two women under his belt. Now, admittedly, I have not read Susanna Moore’s novel on which this film is based, so I do not know how the book differs from the film other than that the ending was changed (and even having not read the book I could tell that - the end is just too anti-climactic and feels as though it was tacked on at the last minute). The latest would-be target is bookish English teacher Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan - cast WAY against type in a very sexually frank role), whose fascination with the murderer begins when part of a woman’s dismembered body is found in the garden outside of her apartment.
Mention must be made here of the atmosphere that Ms. Campion creates of New York City. Think back to movies like ‘Cruising’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ and you will get the idea of the kind of gritty, almost sleazy surroundings we are presented with. Frannie lives in an unkempt East Village walk-up, not the type of place that we are used to seeing the characters played by big stars live in in most movies (Sharon Stone lived in a beautiful high-rise in ‘Sliver’; Ryan’s place in ‘You’ve Got Mail’; Ashley Judd’s pad in ‘Someone Like You’). Her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) lives in an even sleazier apartment above an equally sleazy strip joint. Obviously the characters here are not the high living, Upper East/West Side types we are used to seeing in big budget, Hollywood movies set in New York. This would be kind of refreshing if we cared about the characters more, but it only comes off as sordid since we don’t.
But back to the story, after some initial questioning by Malloy (and some serious sex - although not as soft-core as some reviewers have suggested), Frannie begins to think that maybe Malloy is the killer. Why? Because he has a tattoo that resembles the one that she saw on a man receiving oral sex in an alleyway from a woman who later turned out to be the owner of the body parts found in Frannie’s garden. Pretty flimsy thought process if you ask me, but anyway…
There really is no chase for the killer to speak of. Most of the film’s time is spent on realizing Frannie’s loneliness and inner misery at her life. Her job seems to function to pay the bills, she has only one real friend (Pauline), hangs out in sleazy, depressing bars, and doesn’t seem to have much interest in anything other than interesting words and poems that she comes across while riding on the NYC subway. In fact, the tone of the whole movie is one of depression. How are we, the audience, supposed to become involved in a film and with the film’s characters if everything being shown to us is gloomy in nature? I think this film was going for the same sort of mood that ‘Seven’ created so successfully, but in that film we had the interaction between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, not to mention a truly interesting serial killer storyline, to hold our interest. There is no such interaction here other than that between Ryan and Ruffalo, and that interaction is, for the most part, sexual. There are also two weak subplots thrown into the mix (one involving Ryan’s weirdo ex-boyfriend, played by a creepy Kevin Bacon, and one involving a stereotypical smart, black student of Ryan’s (Sharrieff Pugh) who is obsessed with proving John Wayne Gacy’s innocence!).
In spite of the misled direction and downtrodden atmosphere, Ryan and Ruffalo are excellent in their roles. Ryan definitely proves that she can do more than romantic comedy…and do it well. Yes, she’s naked and yes, she resembles Nicole Kidman (the film’s original star), but she is confident, believable and able to carry the film. Ruffalo is also terrific as the detective. He’s naked too, girls.
All in all, it’s not a great film, it’s sorta visually cool, but, basically, it’s worth seeing, and I hate to say this, mostly because you can see Ryan butt-naked in a role that is, while she carries it off with aplomb, not her usual forte.
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