Too clever by half

Jane Campion tries unsuccessfully to dismantle the serial killer genre from within.

Tom Horgen

Somewhere in this mess of a movie, beneath the dismembered arms and legs, and the severed heads, and the puddles of blood, there is a feminist critique struggling to break through.

Jane Campion, the once-revered director of “The Piano,” is apparently using the serial killer genre as grounds to make some sort of charge against Hollywood’s image of women as both sexual objects and masochistic victims. Unfortunately she frames her critique in a roundabout way that doesn’t quite pan out. She pounds us with hyper-misogynistic images hoping we’ll catch on to her game of subversion. Well, we can see hints of what she is trying to do, but in the end her mishandling of the genre results in the hyper-misogynistic images staying hyper-misogynistic.

Of course Meg Ryan has a lot to do with Campion’s failed critique. The director has cut away the frothy image of innocence, that girl-next-door baloney that has encapsulated Ryan’s career. Here, she is often naked and sexualized.

Ryan plays a schoolteacher who lives in a rough section of New York where a serial killer is cutting up women and sticking them in washing machines. The very talented Mark Ruffalo plays the detective assigned to the case. Ryan’s character eventually runs into his crotch and they begin a steamy sex affair that gets in a few more pelvic thrusts than most mainstream films.

From the beginning we know Campion is up to something. She’s playing with the form of the film – she often has only small parts of the frame in focus and she keeps returning to an ice-skating dream sequence that looks like it was directed by D.W. Griffith. This constant visual tinkering is meant to draw us out of the narrative so that we can recognize the intentional misogyny.

But the rest of the movie is so clumsy that the critique is never fully realized. In fact, no critique could survive under these conditions. After the initial murder, Campion starts flinging so many red herrings that she could open her own Fulton Street fish market. The endless stream of plot hooks drowns our ability to comprehend the director’s subversive game. Ryan’s character senses danger at every turn – her dreams turn violent, a student gives her a paper stained with blood and Ruffalo enjoys making out in what appear to be prime killing spots. And then there’s the twist ending, which is, well, formulaic beyond repair.

The film culminates with a total regression into the patriarchal ideal. Ryan turns on the water works and sobs her way through the final 20 minutes of the film, begging for alpha-male assistance. Victimhood is once again fully aligned on the side of femininity. And the film’s misogynist images – all the other female characters are strippers – represent nothing in the way of a criticism, implied or overt. They simply are what they are.