Cutter’s Way (1981)

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Directed by Ivan Passer

Written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based on the 1976 Newton Thornburg novel)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Stephen Elliot, Patricia Donahue, Athur Rosenberg, Ann Dusenberry

Tagline: Bone saw the killer. Cutter knew the motive.

Trivia: Jeff Bridges got the lead role when United Artists executives were impressed with his supporting performance in Heaven’s Gate.

Originally titled Cutter and Bone, Cutter’s Way has taken on a well earned cult status over the years.  Along with Blow Up from the same year, Cutter’s Way signaled the end and beginning of an era.  On one level a character study on the castaways of the 1960s, on another a political allegory with prophetic overtones.

The film begins in Santa Barbara with Richard Bone (Bridges), a small time hustler/boat salesman who entertains wealthy women, witnessing what might have been the aftermath of a homicide.  Richard’s sidekick Alex Cutter (Heard) is first seen in drunken revelry at the local watering hole, a disabled Vietnam Veteran with a vendetta against the establishment.  Lisa Eichhorn plays Alex’s put upon wife Mo, a performance that manages to center the film, saving it from devolving into a Nihilistic tale of revenge.

Questioned by the police, Richard’s unable to describe what he saw in the dark alley. Later on Richard spots the local oil magnate J.J. Cord at a parade and suddenly comes to believe he was the figure at the murder scene.  Alex begins his own investigation and concludes Cord was guilty and seeks to extort him for money, thereby getting his revenge against the establishment that ruined his life.

Throughout the film a Time Magazine article is often referenced, a piece praising Cord as an outlaw businessman with political ambitions.  The tentacles of Cord’s power are always in the background, all the oil rigs and golf courses made him rich.  As Cutter’s investigation indicates, there are skeleton’s in Cord’s past.

Alex and Mo live on government assistance, both alcoholics drifting through life.  These are people who’ve been smacked around by the system and they reject it.  Their dignity resonates as they aimlessly search for salvation.  Cutter combines the vengeance of Captain Ahab with the acerbic wit of Hunter Thompson, Heard’s performance deserves much praise. Bridges carries the film along as a stand in for the audience, some see the character as a younger version of Jeffrey Lebowski.

As the political ramifications of the story deepens, Alex delivers a poignant speech about the state of post-Vietnam America:

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, 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.’

The second half plays as an allegorical Vietnam.  Cutter and Bone decide to take on Cord and suffer defeats, knowing they are doomed, they kept fighting.  As their sense of paranoia heightens, it’s possible they are chasing phantoms that exist only in their imaginations. Even at the end we’re not sure what to think.  All the major events or turning points in the story contain multiple interpretations.

There’s a dreamlike haze to Cutter’s Way, a blend of light and darkness in the cinematography.  The California hues are bright, but wearisome. The editing, writing, and acting are in precise harmony.

On a final note, the novel by Newton Thornburg is worth a read if you enjoy the film. More is revealed on the backstory of the characters and the setting of Santa Barbara, and there’s a much different ending.

 

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