The Film: Cutter’s Way
The Principles: Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn and Stephen Elliott. Directed by Ivan Passer.
The Premise: Richard Bone is a laid back Santa Barbara boat salesman and local gigolo, who after witnessing a killer dispose of the body of a teenage girl in an alley, turns to his alcoholic Vietnam vet buddy Alex Cutter to help him out. Bone just wants to clear his name, but Cutter takes it as a personal mission to bring the murderer to justice because he suspects it’s one of the most powerful and wealthy businessmen in the area.
Is it any good?: This is one of the last great shaggy dog mystery/thrillers from the seventies, which is why it was almost completely ignored when it was released amongst all the glitter and gloss of the early eighties. The film is cold, gritty and moody. The two main characters are each wandering through a post-Vietnam haze, staying true to their blind idealism while the world around them is already shifting into a more materialistic state of mind. Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an aging playboy who’s still trying to get by on his blonde surfer boy good looks, but has reached a point in his life where that is no longer enough. Cutter (John Heard) is a disabled vet with one eye, one arm, one leg, a horrible drinking problem and a surly nature. He chooses to remain completely inebriated along with his doomed, suffering wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who has developed an affection for Bone. It’s the white trash love triangle from hell.
Things get complicated after Bone stumbles upon a violent crime one rainy night. A teenage girl has been murdered and there’s a good possibility that the one responsible is none other than J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliot), the wealthiest and most powerful businessman in California. Since the evidence they have is flimsy and purely circumstantial, Bone wants to just forget about it and keep drifting along, but Cutter refuses to let it go. J.J. Cord represents the ruling elite that sent him off to war while he and all his rich friends stayed behind and got richer as a result. For Cutter, he’s not only responsible for the death of this girl; “he and all the mother fuckers just like him” are everything that’s wrong with America, and for that matter himself. After conducting some investigating and making it very obvious about their suspicions, the two soon find their own lives in peril, as they get closer to the truth.
John Heard’s performance as Cutter is a tour de force and without a doubt his best. He should have won ten Oscars for it. He plays the most like-able drunken, racist, bitter, abusive, asshole I’ve ever rooted for before. His physicality and line delivery is perfection. Jeff Bridges does a typically outstanding job as the aimless, apathetic Bone, whose character can almost be viewed as a younger version to his “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. Actually, there are several similarities in plot and character to this movie and the Coen brother’s cult classic I just mentioned, with the huge exception of tone and style. It’s the oddest buddy movie I’ve ever seen before. The two main guys clearly have affection for each other, but it’s an incredibly volatile and untrusting friendship, which is made even more tense when Bone starts a sexual relationship with Cutter’s wife, Mo. Lisa Eichhorn really lays on the self pity with her sad, desperate alcoholic housewife, who continues to enable her husband while simultaneously loathing and lusting after Jeff Bridge’s Bone (no pun intended). The acting and dialogue is top notch across the boards.
This is one of those noir films, like The Long Goodbye and Hickey and Boggs, which are drenched in an oppressive glare of southern California sunlight throughout. It serves as stark contrast to the dark themes and seamy characters on display. It was shot by master cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (who made Blade Runner one of the most beautiful films ever made) and he sets a nice mood in the flashiness of Santa Barbara’s glitzy rich contrasted with the filth and squalor of our main protagonists. Jack Nitzsche’s score is eerily haunting and beautiful music. It’s one of his best and most subtle. The script is smart, darkly humorous, tragic, mysterious and extremely suspenseful. Watching it again recently as an adult I must say, this film is visionary in that you can view it today as a metaphor for the one per centers versus the ninety nine per centers.
Is it worth a look?: This is an underrated classic and amongst one of the last seventies movies to be released in the eighties. It’s a dark noir mystery set amidst the rise of the Reagan era and it speaks volumes beyond its pulpy plot with deep social commentary. The structure of this movie is odd and brilliant and the ending is one of those incredibly abrupt types, like the 80’s James Wood’s thriller Cop, where something explosively cathartic happens and the screen cuts to black followed by the credits. No patronizing wrap up to tie everything into a nice neat package. You’re left with an impression that you’ve just witnessed some seriously awesome filmmaking unlike anything that is currently made today. If you like angry, cynical seventies crime cinema I suggest you hunt down this smoldering work of genius that had the misfortune of being released in the wrong decade.
Random anecdotes: I watched this film on cable television when I was a kid and it really stuck with me. I had the pleasure of attending a 35mm screening at the last “Wright Stuff” film festival that Edgar Wright held at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. It was part of a series he did of films that he’s always wanted to see, but never has before. The print featured its original title Cutter and Bone and the sold out audience was pretty blown away by its awesomeness.
Cinematic soul mates: The Long Goodbye, Night Moves, Hickey and Boggs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Point Blank, The Silent Partner, Body Heat, Cop and The Big Lebowski.