by Frank Olson
Ever since 1973, when Elliott Gould’s shaggy private eye strutted insouciantly through Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Hollywood has shown a periodic fascination with the collision of ‘60s counterculture and the corrupt nighttime world of noir. It’s easy to root for the idealistic little guy railing against the cynical and shadowy establishment, and it’s hard not to identify with and get swept up in the protagonists’ struggle as they get swallowed up in a web of deceit that they can barely comprehend. This fruitful dynamic has powered films as distinct as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. The most profound and elegant variation on this story is found in Cutter’s Way, Ivan Passer’s touching look at several beautiful losers surviving in a world that no longer has a place for them.
Director: Ivan Passer
Producer: Paul R. Gurian
Writers: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, Newton Thornburg (novel Cutter and Bone)
Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth
Editor: Caroline Ferriol
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliott, Arthur Rosenberg, Nina Van Pallandt, Patricia Donahue, Geraldine Baron
US Theatrical Release: March 20, 1981
US Distributor: United Artists Classics
Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an aimless beach bum boat salesman who randomly witnesses a man dumping a body in a dumpster, though he’s initially unclear on what he’s seeing as this happens during a heavy rainfall. The discovery of the dead body becomes a news story, and Bone’s live-in best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a ferociously sarcastic and paranoid Vietnam vet, launches an informal investigation. What begins as a joke turns deadly serious after Bone thinks that he recognizes local oil tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) as the man who dumped the body. While Bone thinks better of accusing a rich and powerful man of murder, Cutter insists on blackmailing Cord and pursues this obsession with a righteous glee. Also complicit in Cutter’s scheme are the victim’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) and Cutter’s long-suffering wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), both of whom harbor sexual feelings for Bone.
Though screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (adapting Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone) keeps the plotting tight and rarely strays far from the blackmail plot, the narrative mostly moves forward through a series of well-observed slice-of-life interactions between the disaffected main characters rather than through big setpieces. The story develops organically in unison with the character development. Bone’s listlessness is immediately established in a witty introductory scene that finds him failing to land a yacht sale with a client he’s just slept with (she doesn’t think she could convince her husband to spend the money). Cutter is instantly identified as a force of nature with his throaty growl and blotto swagger. One-eyed and crippled, he is first seen nearly instigating a brawl at a bar thanks to some offbeat racial humor. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Cutter carelessly rams his car repeatedly into a neighbor’s vehicle while drunkenly attempting to park in his own driveway.
Of course the indelible impression that the characters leave is not just a product of the screenplay but also of the fantastic performances by the leads. Heard is the obvious standout in the showiest role, popping off the screen with a rare type of livewire energy that makes it seem that Cutter is capable of any outrage at any moment (think Heath Ledger as the Joker or Klaus Kinski as Aguirre). Though he provides many of the film’s funniest moments, Cutter is never a cuddly comic relief figure and always seems on the verge of complete self-destruction. Bridges is more restrained in an appearance so natural that Bone seems less like a character than a natural extension of Bridges’ personality. The female characters are given less to do, but Eichhorn is a striking presence. Bone complains that Mo is always stoned, but Eicchorn plays her in such a way that she constantly seems to be coming down, just as Bone seems to exist in a perpetual state of morning-after regret.
The protagonists of Cutter’s Way are unmistakably burnouts, and while the film never entirely loses its sympathy for their plight the filmmakers are also savvy enough to point out the ways that their psychological scars may be clouding their judgment. Though Cord and his hangers-on are depicted as vaguely sinister, untouchable winners, and it is heavily implied that Cord is guilty of the murder (as well as a number of shady business dealings), the possibility is left open that Cord’s involvement in the crime is essentially one of Cutter’s delusions. Whether the oil tycoon is actually guilty of the murder seems almost beside the point of Cutter’s raging mission. Cutter is clearly using the case as an excuse to rage at the establishment that sent him off to get crippled in an unjust war. Likewise, while the offscreen death of a major character late in the film could be Cord sending a warning to our heroes, it seems just as likely that it was a suicide. Are we watching a noble yet doomed quest to avenge an injustice or a quixotic folly based around a broken war vet’s freewheeling paranoia? Should we be more critical of Bone’s slacker lifestyle, of Cutter’s kamikaze recklessness, or of Cord’s above-it-all free market capitalism? The ambiguous, abrupt ending leaves these questions dangling unsettlingly in the air as the film cuts to black, moments before Jack Nitzsche’s eerie zither and harmonica theme plays us out.