Like congenitally affable lap dogs, all too many current mainstream films work overtime to ingratiate themselves with the audience. Nothing must get in the way of their providing unadulterated pleasure from one moment to another. Nothing must give rise to complexity or complication. This particularly applies to the behavior of the central characters. It is not simply that they come across as one-dimensional, but more that they rarely surprise or upset our expectations.
One reason for this phenomenon is the public’s unquestioning acceptance of the U.S. star system. Audiences appear to require only the narrowest range of possibilities from characters embodied by their idols. Take, for example, the fact that Julia Roberts chose to portray the mousy assistant in the current comedy America’s Sweethearts rather than the abrasive movie star played by Catherine Zeta Jones. By doing so, Roberts reincarnates the Cinderella she played in Pretty Woman (1990), rather than stretching anyone’s expectations.
Ivan Passer’s 1981 thriller, Cutter’s Way, now being released on DVD, dispenses with virtually all obligations to satisfy audience inclinations toward dependable characters and undemanding plots. The three central individuals in Cutter’s Way are dissolute slackers who ordinarily hesitate from committing to anything more demanding that another drink or sexual conquest. Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a gigolo gone to seed, living off the good will of his professional benefactor, George Swanson (Arthur Rosenberg), for whom he sells expensive boats. Bone’s best friend, Alexander Cutter (John Heard), has lost an eye, an arm, and a leg in the Vietnam War and keeps the world at bay through his excessive consumption of alcohol and a steady stream of vitriolic sarcasm. Completing the trio is Cutter’s wife, Maureen (Lisa Eichhorn), who puts up with his indolence by means of her own brand of defensive irony.
It takes a murder investigation to rouse these three from their customary inertia. Bone has accidentally seen someone disposing of a the body of a murdered teenaged girl, and comes to the conclusion that the perpetrator is the town’s leading citizen, J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). When Bone refuses to act on his suspicions, Cutter takes over the quest against Cord and relentlessly pursues the matter to a tragic conclusion. Cutter believes that convicting Cord will not only resolve the murder, but also the injustice of a world in which the innocent are subject to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. Bone ambivalently becomes involved in this quixotic quest, and finds in this alliance a means to achieving the sort of commitment he has avoided all his life.
Passer expertly laces this compelling character study with all the intrigue and narrative complications familiar from classic film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s. Like those films, Cutter’s Way has a memorable look and sound, the images and score planting themselves as indelibly in one’s mind as the events in the narrative. Something is rotten in the elegant oasis of Santa Barbara, California, and Jordan Cronenweth’s atmospheric cinematography visually dissects the rot beneath the wealth of sunlight and clear skies. When Bone and the sister of the murdered girl take a spin out on the idyllic Pacific, Cronenweth incorporates two oil extraction platforms in the frame, a telling recognition of the presence of commerce in the midst of paradise. The eerie and haunting score by Jack Nitzsche also hints at the characters’ alienation and disorientation in the midst of Southern California’s apparent serenity.
Passer began his career in Czechoslovakia as a peer and collaborator of fellow expatriate Milos Forman, who directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1977). Passer’s American pictures are for the most part low-budget affairs or television productions that have achieved more critical approval than box-office clout. Cutter’s Way was itself a commercial failure on its initial release, even though United Artists tried to market the picture as both a mainstream feature and art-house fare. The original, early 1980s audiences appear to have been perplexed by the sympathetic treatment of Passer’s dissolute protagonist, perhaps put off by the characters’ theatrical displays of drunken excess. Little about Cutter’s commitment to solving the crime drew these audiences back into the narrative. However, the masterful manner with which Passer crafts the narrative and the expert performances he draws from his three leads has won me over. Cutter’s Way is certainly the best film of Passer’s career, as well as one of the most memorable pictures of the 1980s—and since then.
Cutter’s Way is most effectively a character study, and the delineation of the three principal figures amounts to some of the finest screen acting in recent years. Jeff Bridges has always been one of the most dependably accomplished and criminally underrated of all American film actors. Initially, Bone seems a kind of second cousin to his laid-back Dude in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1999), yet Bridges reveals the shades of chivalry and substance beneath Bone’s non-responsive surface. Heard has a broader range of behavior to map. Cutter at first comes across as a kind of latter day Long John Silver: all bluster and bravado without any effort at restraint. However, as the narrative begins its final descent into heartbreak, his command of the screen is breathtaking. Heard draws out the tender core of Cutter’s hardened cynicism without playing on the audience’s heartstrings or obliterating the character’s fearsome anger and passion.
The dominant female presence in the film, Lisa Eichhorn, holds the screen with a dynamism equal to her male cohorts. Her Maureen is never the victim of the two men in her life, however much it might seem like she habitually acquiesces to their moods and schemes. Eichhorn’s cracked, world-weary voice combines with an inspired use of gesture and silence to rivet one’s attention every moment she is on the screen. One is at a loss to understand why Eichhorn never made another film of note following Cutter’s Way.
The film insinuates its way into one’s consciousness, much as Cutter’s certainty of Cord’s guilt eventually convinces Bone. Furthermore, as intricate and absorbing as the plot and performances are, the refusal by Passer and scriptwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin to make Cutter a one-dimensional avenging angel brings still more intricacy to the film. It is left up to the audience whether Cutter’s assumptions about Cord are verifiable, or are the pathetic ramblings of an alcoholic, paranoid war veteran. It is even more a matter for our appraisal whether the actions Alex takes in pursuit of Cord are heroic or half-witted or both. For a film that places at its center the resolution of a mystery, Cutter’s Way surprisingly ends in the conditional tense. “What if it were?” are the last words spoken. The impact of that statement leave viewers in a position to re-examine all that they have seen from a variety of perspectives and eager to watch Cutter’s Way again and again. The reissue of this overlooked film on DVD allows this opportunity, although it certainly would have benefitted from commentary by the actors and director. Cutter’s Way has been marketed by MGM as part of their “Contemporary Classics” series. For once, this kind of promotional language is anything but hyperbole.