Paranoia and sadness pervade Ivan Passer’s deeply wounded crime drama
There are films that fly under the radar, and then there’s Ivan Passer’s 1981 thriller Cutter’s Way. It’s the kind of thing you might have caught on TV late at night before the turn of the century, a film you’d never heard of but before you knew it, you were engrossed in its unsettling narrative of murder, post-Vietnam suffering, desperate paranoia and sad regrets. It’s a loose, moody, edgy and utterly mesmerising work, one of the most haunting films of the 1980s that also feels like a melancholy hangover from the previous decade.
There were a fair few films in the early 80s that still had a certain kind of 70s sensibility to them, but which failed to tap into the public mood. In the summer of 1982, no one wanted to see the bleak savagery of The Thing when E.T was warming hearts worldwide. Similarly, the complex, philosophical and downbeat likes of Blade Runner was annihilated by the more immediately satisfying good vs evil space opera of Star Trek II. The year before, two grim thrillers that peeked behind the American flag only to be horrified at what was there were released. One was the high-profile spectacle of Brian de Palma’s thrilling but tragic Blow Out, which had millions upon millions of dollars thrown at it but still failed at the box office. Yet it’s easy to imagine De Palma’s film being a hit had it come out around the time when paranoid, pessimistic thrillers like Chinatown or The Parallax View were pulling in the crowds back in the early-to-mid-seventies. Cutter’s Way, while just as uncompromising in its refusal to serve up a happy ending as Blow Out, is nevertheless so low-key and offbeat that it’s difficult to imagine it being a success in any time.
Set in the late-seventies in sunny California, the handsome Richard ‘Fastest Dick on the Beach’ Bone (Jeff Bridges) is drifting aimlessly through a gigolo life, living off the desires and sympathies of older, richer women. The first time we see him, he’s grooming his moustache with his latest trick’s electric razor after what seems to have been some pretty unsatisfying sex. On his way home, in the pouring rain, his car gives out and he sees what looks like the disposal of something in an alleyway trash can. It isn’t until the next day, when the morning newspaper reports that the dead body of a teenage girl was found in that very same place, that Bone realises he’d actually seen the disposal of a corpse the night before, the corpse of a girl who’d been brutally beaten and raped before she was murdered. And it isn’t until he sees the face of J.J Cord, extremely wealthy landowner, benefactor and legit cover star of Time, smiling from the passing street parade, that he believes he might have seen the killer the night before as well, and says as much with a stunned ‘it’s him’. He’s sure of it.
Or is he?
It was just a gut reaction, spoken aloud, something he would have maybe brushed aside instantly were it not that his best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) heard him say it. And Cutter’s the kind of guy who won’t let it go. A deliberately provocative, vulgar, alcoholic troublemaker, he’s a wounded Vietnam veteran who returned from the war with a lost eye, a lost leg and a barely contained rage at the world, at humanity… at the likes of Cord, who represents the kind of rich, complacent leader that sent him off to battle whilst keeping his own hands clean from combat. Bone just wants to forget what he said — that’s his way of going about things. As Cutter puts it, Bone avoiding trouble is evidence of ‘a pro in action doing what he does best — walking away’.
Richard Bone: You know, you’ve got one big problem.
Alex Cutter: What’s that?
Richard Bone: Your imagination.
Cutter, however, wants justice. Or maybe even revenge. He’s the kind of man who blazes his own trail, with Bone left wandering dazed and bemused in his wake. Just as frustrated with Cutter is his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), a depressed, similarly booze-drenched lost soul who dreams of a blissful future that’ll never come, pining for a family that’s unlikely. She also harbours a resentment towards the lackadaisical Bone, putting him down as ‘playing second-fiddle to a one-eyed cripple’, although as Bone accurately retorts, Cutter’s not your average one-eyed cripple. There’s definitely some kind of unresolved romantic tension between Mo and Bone too — their exchanges are constantly loaded with something burning. Sometimes it’s annoyance, sometimes it’s desire.
Convinced that Cord is the killer, Cutter, with Bone in reluctant tow, forms an alliance with the victim’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), and concoct a plan to expose Cord by blackmailing him. Bone’s still unconvinced, but what else is there to do? His friend and employer, the amiable, good-natured George (Arthur Rosenberg), who also works for Cord, starts asking questions about Cutter, while also offering Bone a more permanent employment at his marina. Whether it’s down to a fear of settling down in a responsible job, or suspicion over George’s curious, nosy questioning, Bone decides to get on board with Cutter’s wild plan. Yet in typical uncommitted Bone fashion, he doesn’t follow through with the plot to hand over to Cord their written demands, chickening out at the last minute. Disgusted, Cutter decides to take action himself. And this is when things turn much, much darker. It turns out that, for all the wildness of Cutter’s far-reaching theories, he might have been totally correct about Cord, who isn’t taking threats of blackmail lightly at all.
I won’t spoil what happens, but in more ways than one, after a seismic, pivotal and utterly tragic event, Cutter’s Way spins off its axis; somewhat appropriately, given the shattering incident in question, it’s not just Cutter who spirals out of control. Likewise, the film’s third act feels less disciplined and maybe even a little rushed, albeit still remarkably powerful. For over an hour, Passer’s film is very similar to its source material, Newton Thornburg’s remarkable 1976 novel Cutter and Bone — yes, there are some changes, such as Cutter and Mo being childless in the film, or the previously saintly George now being connected to the Cord empire, but the spirit and the guts of the novel is all there.
Two thirds in however, the film and the novel go their own separate ways. Thornburg’s novel dives into a brief interlude of unbearable, suicidal sadness before dusting itself down in preparation for its final act, only to ramp up the dread and impending danger to such horrific levels that its final act ends up as nightmarish as the scariest horror stories, right down to its gasp-inducing final sentence. The film, whilst culminating on a note that, in its own way, is just as disturbing as its source, moves towards its climax with quieter, wearier doom. Indeed, the final scenes and its final shot linger, uneasily. The very last line spoken is ‘what if it were?’ and unlike the definitive, coldly brutal resolution of the novel, Cutter’s Way leaves you full of questions, questions that will never be answered. You’re left beaten, lost and sad.
Indeed, what one takes away most from Cutter’s Way is sadness. It’s the sort of film that whenever I think of it, my stomach lurches in brief pain, my heart drops a beat and the memory of its power washes over me once again. These characters rarely look like they’re going to win, and the agony of Passer’s film is to see these characters fail, especially on repeated viewings when we know for sure that they will. In a world that lacks heroes, Cutter may be hungry for some kind of retribution, and that hunger is palpable, but it’s doomed. His final, spectacular gesture, had it been freeze-framed like the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, might have given him something almost approximating a heroic ending, preserved forever as a blaze of glory, but this is not that film. This is a film of haves and have-nots, and beneath the sadness of this tale lies anger. Cutter, Bone and Mo (Valerie too) are definitely have-nots, living in the more rundown suburban area of California. When Cutter foolishly shoots his mouth off about Cord to Bone and Valerie in a fancy restaurant, these three ‘would-be extortionists’ stick out in this well-to-do world like a trio of sore thumbs. To Cutter, Vietnam was a battle where only the poor and those who weren’t part of the elite were sent out to die, or come back disgraced. ‘It’s never their ass on the line’, Cutter spits out in venom. Later on, he says it plain and clear how he feels to Bone in a stunning piece of writing:
“I watched the war on TV like everybody else. Thought the same damn things. You know what you thought when you saw a picture of a young woman with a baby lying face down in a ditch, two gooks. You had three reactions, Rich, same as everybody else. The first one was real easy: ‘I hate the United States of America‘. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch: ‘There is no God‘. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? ‘I’m hungry‘. I’m hungry, Rich. I’m fuckin’ starved.”
Cutter’s Way has many strengths, but the one that deservedly gets the most praise is its performances. Simply put, in its three leads, we have a dream combination of actors. Heard, Bridges and Eichhorn are so good here that they should have been given some kind of ensemble award. When they share the screen, you don’t know who to focus on — all three of them sync together so well, their actions and reactions subtle but beautiful, their confrontations electric and burdened with too much history.
John Heard is probably still best known to many audiences as Macaulay Culkin’s dad in the first two Home Alone films, and hey — he gives good, straight performances in those movies — but as Alex Cutter he’s a goddamn force of nature. This is one of the most astounding performances I have ever seen in a film, and credit to Passer for insisting he was cast instead of a bigger name, which is what United Artists wanted. Yes, he’s unsympathetic, bitter and manipulative (he sure knows when to play up his Vietnam past to get out of impending arrests), but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Even though it might seem at first that changing the name of Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way sells short the importance of Bone to the film, the new title is actually better suited, given that Cutter is the chaotic, fiery centre that all the other characters are hopelessly drawn to. Be it walking out in the middle of a horse race, opening fire on a boardwalk target range with his own gun or hilariously taunting his angry neighbours, he’s the kind of guy you certainly won’t be bored around, even if you fear for your own personal well-being, as well as his. Yet he’s also a bastard who slaps his wife. Cutter is a deeply flawed man, and Heard, never better, is magnificent. ‘I haven’t even begun to let my imagination loose on this one’, he says to Bone when called out for his fanciful theorising. Indeed, there’s a jaw-dropping moment when Cutter, drawing completely from his imagination, plays out how he reckons the possible encounter between Cord and Valerie’s sister might have played out, wherein she mocks him for his pathetic sexual performance, leading him to kill her in fury. This is delivered with so much terrifying, plausible rage (Heard is incredible here) that it’s no wonder those around Cutter get drawn into his persuasive worldview.
Jeff Bridges gives one of his best, most overlooked performances as the commitment-phobic Bone. Impressed with his work on the as-yet-unreleased epic Heaven’s Gate, United Artists insisted that he be part of the film to boost its commercial appeal, as he was as close as anything to a star name in their immediate orbit. Given that it was a studio-enforced choice rather than a creative one, Bridges turned out to be impeccable in the role. Given a little more responsibility than he had in the novel (he owns a boat, he has a job of sorts), Bone is still a dazed wanderer of sorts, not unlike his later ‘Fabulous’ Jack Baker, or even The Dude. Cutter says the world lacks heroes, but Bone doesn’t want to be one. He’s always ‘got nothing to say’. Yet as George puts it, sooner or later he’s going to have to make a decision about something. You could argue that the final scene finally sees that happen, but only after everything’s been lost and Bone has essentially no other choice; it’s less a decision, more a final act of desperation.
Then there’s Lisa Eichhorn, who gives what the American Film Institute called ‘the most underrated performance of the decade’ — hers is a turn that’s so reactive and subtle, and she’s absolutely wonderful. Few characters are as tragic and heartbreaking as Mo Cutter, and Eichhorn totally lives and breathes her existence. Mo’s become so numb and lost that she often has ‘to check on her reflection to see if she’s there’, and when she and Bone give into their desires, it’s less an ecstatic release and more a weary, inevitable turn of events. Even though she admits that doing so could mean the end of their friendship, their consummation happens anyway — the preceding fireplace-lit slow-dance between them is beautifully tender, but the actual sex is a sorrowful affair, with Mo in tears and Bone hopelessly trying to console her. It’s a deeply sad moment in a film full of sad moments.
Of the supporting performances, the most notable is Ann Dusenberry as Valerie — she made a really strong impression in Jaws 2 as Tina, the poor girl who saw her boyfriend dragged through and then underneath the waves by a great white shark, succumbing to a complete nervous breakdown swiftly after. It was a terrific breakthrough performance, and yet she’s quite different here — withdrawn, tricky to read and solemn. It’s a shame Valerie disappears from the film without any explanation — the novel at least gave a reason why! Arthur Rosenberg’s George is a likeable, well-connected and put-upon character, but the more you learn about him, the more you suspect his friendly exterior hides a centre wracked with fear, especially when its suggested that Cord might have murdered George’s businessman father in an extreme instance of hostile takeover. It’s Cutter’s theory, so it could just be sheer conspiracy theory, but that’s Cutter’s way — he has a way of making you believe him.
All of these actors are blessed with a terrific script by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin that offers up countless examples of choice dialogue, some of it lifted from the novel, some of it not, but all of it delivered with maximum impact. ‘The daily routine drives me to drink — tragedy I take straight’ is a brilliant line, and Cutter responding to accusations of driving without a licence with ‘the car runs fine without one’ is another. Also, for all of Cutter’s Way’s sadness, it’s an exceptionally funny film in parts — Cutter’s out-of-nowhere anecdote about an orgy that included a feral monkey (‘the little fuckers bite‘) is so hilariously absurd it even makes the pissed-off Mo struggle to hide a smile right there and then.
“I don’t drink. You know, the routine grind drives me to drink. Tragedy, I take straight.”
Cutter’s Way is also enhanced by a striking, disconcertingly dreamy visual style, full of morning mists and summery bliss from cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, a year before he went on to conjure untold levels magic on Blade Runner. The film looks just like it feels — beautifully sad — and is complemented amazingly well (especially during the opening title sequence) by a haunting, discordant score by Jack Nitszche. Nitszche, a master of delicate, heart-wrenching emotion, offers up refrains and melodies here that never fail to haunt me. Together, he and Cronenweth give this film levels of unsettling beauty that are on the level of Chinatown in the way they lull you into a hypnotic spell, only to reduce you to a wreck by the end.
Passer’s film had an unfortunately rocky ride to cinema screens — United Artists, reeling financially from the colossal failure of Heaven’s Gate the year before, didn’t have much faith in its commercial prospects. Those at UA who had initially supported Cutter’s Way had jumped ship to work for 20th Century Fox, leaving the film abandoned without any champions to give it the boost it needed. Released under its original Cutter and Bone title, an unsuccessful initial run in New York (not helped by influential critic Vincent Canby’s negative review) only seemed to confirm the doubts of those left behind at UA, who then made plans to withdraw it from cinemas. Passer, disgusted at the way UA had given up on his baby before it had a chance to find an audience, likened the film’s harsh treatment to a kind of ‘assassination’. It was only after that last-minute name change to Cutter’s Way (apparently to avoid sounding like a comedy about surgeons!) and a re-distribution by UA’s prestige ‘Classics’ division that it found a second life, doing extremely well on the festival circuit and garnering much, much better appraisals.
Still, even after that comeback of sorts, Cutter’s Way was destined to remain on the fringes. I’d never even heard of it until a university lecturer of mine regarded it as the quintessential example of a cult film, a film of unconventional narrative, flawed characters, unresolved endings and whatnot. Eventually discovering it on a late-night television screening, I was astounded by how beautiful a film it was then, and still is now. Like the saddest songs, its exquisite pain is not something I regularly return to, but whenever I do, the effect is devastating. Cutter’s Way remains a hidden gem.