Friday, May 27, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Cutter's Way (1981)

Cutter’s Way (1981) ****
Directed by: Ivan Passer.
Written by: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin based on the novel by Newton Thornburg.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Richard Bone), John Heard (Alex Cutter), Lisa Eichhorn (Maureen Cutter), Ann Dusenberry (Valerie Duran), Stephen Elliott (J. J. Cord), Arthur Rosenberg (George Swanson), Nina Van Pallandt (Woman in the Hotel), Patricia Donahue (Mrs. Cord).

Cutter’s Way was essentially abandoned by its own studio back in 1981. Discouraged by the few harsh initial reviews, and realizing since it had been approved by the previous regime that if the film was a success, they wouldn’t receive any credit, the studio pawned it off on its independent division – who renamed it and made it a critical success. But in the 30 years since it’s release, most people have pretty much forgotten about Cutter’s Way – which is a shame because it is an excellent character study posing as a paranoid thriller. It really does feel like the type of film they made during the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s, when films like this had an easier time getting made. Yet despite the fact that Cutter’s Way is certainly a product of its time, it is a film that has not really aged – it is as relevant now as it was when it was made.

Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances as Richard Bone, a holdover from the 1960s who is pretty much aimlessly drifting through his life, unwilling or unable to commit to anything. He works as a salesman at the marina, but doesn’t really try very hard, and spends more time sleeping with the unsatisfied wives of rich men in LA – and expects a cash tip for his troubles. While leaving one of these dalliances, his car breaks down in an alley. Seeing another car pull up, and dump something out into a garbage can, he tries to flag them down for help – only to get almost run over. He goes on with his day, tracking down his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) in a local bar. Cutter has been scared by the Vietnam war – both physically, as he is missing an eye, an arm and a leg, and emotionally. He takes pleasure in screwing with people – as we see right from the beginning as he baits two African American patrons – almost daring them to hit a cripple. Bone then moves on to the Cutter’s house – he is crashing with his friend – where he flirts with Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who like her husband is an alcoholic. She is drawn to Bone, and he is drawn to her, but she has never given in to his advances – sensing, perhaps correctly, that once she says yes to Bone, like every other woman, he will no longer care.

The movie will eventually turn into a murder mystery. Of course what that car was dumping in the alley was a dead body – and Bone becomes a suspect because of his car being there. But the police don’t actually think he did it – he’d have to be pretty damned stupid to leave his car next to his murder victim. Bone only got a glimpse of the man doing the dumping – but at a parade he thinks he sees him. The man is JJ Cord (Stephen Elliot), a man of immense wealth and influence in the community. When he tells this to Cutter, he decides that they should blackmail Cord into giving them money – then they’d have proof he was guilty and could turn him in. Also in on the blackmail scheme is the victim’s sister, Valerie (Anna Dusenberry), whose motives are somewhat cloudy.

Whether or not Cord is guilty is really beside the point. To Cutter, Cord, and corporate bigwigs like him, is already guilty – already responsible for events like Vietnam, and everything else that is destroying America with its violence and greed. The power structure has changed – the class structure has changed – and now people like Cord run everything. Whether he killed that young girl or not, at least in Cutter’s eyes, Cord is guilty of murder.

The plot is really just an excuse for a character study of these three wounded individuals. John Heard has the showy role as the crippled Cutter – angry and bitter at the country he fought for, and the price is cost him, he glories in antagonizing people for the hell of it. He fully admits he is paranoid, but he doesn’t really care. He wants desperately to get back at Cord for the injustices visited upon him, that he doesn’t care if he’s guilty or not. Heard is a talented actor, who has never been given a role as good as Cutter in his career, but he makes the most of it. I would be shocked if Gary Sinise never saw this movie, because in his famed performance as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, he seems to be trying to channel Heard in this film. For his part, Jeff Bridges does some amazing work, with a much more subtle, quiet character. Bone is essentially a coward – sitting on the sidelines, never committing to anything. He quite simply doesn’t care, but slowly, surely he is dragged down into the muck that Cutter is creating. His final act in the movie represents the first time in his life than Bone has really made a decision. Drawn to both of these men is Lisa Eichhorn’s Maureen – perhaps because each of the men have what the other lack. If you put them together, they might make a good man. She has given up putting her faith in either of these men, but acts an enabler to both of them. Her end in the movie is really what drives it towards it violent climax.

Directed by Ivan Passer, Cutter’s Way is a fascinating little film. It’s a thriller, but not really, because it is too interested in its characters to allow them to go through a cookie cutter plot that most thrillers require. The film has been compared to Easy Rider, and in some ways, that comparison is apt. But Cutter’s Way never takes it easy on its audience – or gives them a easy out like the ending of that film did. Right down to its core, Cutter’s Way is dark, cynical and ambigious. It’s an underrated classic that deserves to be rediscovered.

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