Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Cutter's Way (a.k.a. Cutter and Bone)
One of my minor claims to fame is that, as a fresman in college, I had Jeff Bridges's mother-in-law for an English teacher. She was a great teacher, and I would frequently chat with her about her son-in-law's films (She would also regale me with tales of attending the Oscar ceremony when Jeff was nominated for Starman; Christmas caroling at Jane Fonda's house with Andy Garcia and Martin Landau; and which co-stars were so drug-addled that they could barely act.). In order to keep up with these conversations, I tried to watch as many of Jeff Bridges's movies as I could, and one she strongly recommended was the 1981 neo-noir film Cutter's Way.
Cutter's Way stars Jeff Bridges as a Los Angeles slacker whose best friend, a Vietnam veteran, becomes obsessed with a rich man whom he believes is guilty of a crime. Now, I know that plot may sound familiar, and, as far as I can find in my research, the normally reticent Coen Brothers have not addressed a connection between this film and The Big Lebowski. Much of the discussion of influence on the Coen Brothers' film focuses on its sources in Raymond Chandler's work, or the connections to real-life Los Angelians (like the fact that the Dude is based on a real person, or that Walter Sobchak was inspired by director John Milius). However, anyone watching Cutter's Way in the light of The Big Lebowski will find the connections both obvious and interesting.
I would rate Cutter's Way among the most underrated and overlooked masterpieces of the 1980s. The reason for its overlooked status may be the fact that the film had a troubled production and spotty initial release. The film was originally released as Cutter and Bone (the title of the novel on which the film is based), but the studio, United Artists, pulled the film from theaters after one week due to negative reviews from New York critics. However, late reviews of the film were glowing, and UA turned the film over to its arthouse division, which renamed the film Cutter's Way and released it in a couple of film festivals, where it got more positive attention. The film was ultimately profitable, but it never received a nation-wide release.
Some critics cite the film's proximity to Heaven's Gate as another reason why the studio got cold feet. Bridges got the role in Cutter's Way due to early pre-release buzz about his performance in Heaven's Gate, but that film became so tainted due to its soaring budget, production delays, and negative buzz that UA may have become nervous about releasing a film that was even remotely associated with it. (As an aside, though, I believe that Heaven's Gate is a movie deserving of serious critical reassessment. If one were to look at it with "clean eyes"--without the baggage of the film's history and reputation--one might see it as a flawed but ambitious and innovative classic.)
In Cutter's Way, Bridges plays Richard Bone, a directionless and unsuccessful yacht salesman who seems to hover around the fringes of the LA upper-class. When we first see him, he is getting dressed after sleeping with a potential "client" (Nina van Pallandt). In an awkward exchange that we can assume isn't a first for Bone, he asks van Pallandt for money, which she casually hands over to him. Before leaving the hotel room, he confirms with her that she is, indeed, not going to buy a boat.
Bone leaves the hotel in his beat-up Austin Healey, which subsequently breaks down in an alley while Bone is on the way to a bar. Seeing another car pull into the alley behind him, Bone signals the driver for help, but the other car speeds off, nearly running over Bone. Later, we find out that the other driver had disposed of a 17-year-old girl's body in an alley garbage can, and Bone is the only witness.
Bone then makes his way to a local bar, where he meets up with his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a dissheveled Vietnam vet who lost an eye, an arm, and a leg in the war. What truly makes this film stand out is Heard's amazing, fearless, unsympathetic performance. Cutter is one of the most thoroughly unlikeable characters in film, and he works hard to make sure no one likes him. He provokes people to the edge of violence, then uses his crippled condition and war experience to evade physical confrontation. In the bar, he randomly begins hurling racial slurs at nearby pool players, who then begin to gang up on him but quickly give him a pass because he is a veteran. Later, Cutter drives home late at night, drunk, and repeatedly slams his car into a neighbor's vehicle. He then continues to drunkenly provoke the neighbor, who must release his frustrations by beating on Cutter's car because he cannot beat on Cutter himself. When the police arrive, Cutter goes into his house and returns wearing his fatigue jacket and again plays the crippled veteran card. The police let him off with a citation for having an expired license.
Despite his misanthropy, Cutter has an enormously loyal circle of friends, including his wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), in addition to Bone. Cutter is completely dependent on this support system, yet he does everything he can to drive them away. At one point in the film, Cutter answers the phone with "Calcutta--Black Hole speaking." Cutter is an emotional black hole, and his gravitational force pulls in those around him. The film, however, makes it easy to understand why these people stick around--both Bone and Mo are tremendously motivated by guilt, and both find it difficult to escape the inertia of their own lives. Mo, in fact, is so absorbed into Cutter's worldview that she, too, does her best to alienate those around her, though she and Bone eventually bond over their mutual suffering at the hand of Cutter. (Eichhorn, like Heard, gives a raw, fearless performance here, and it's one of the great losses in film that her career hasn't been as strong as she deserves.) In a devastatingly brutal early scene, Mo reaches her hand out to Bone in a gesture that Bone interprets as a desire for intimacy. When Bone grasps her hand in return, Mo abruptly replies, "No--the bottle," and grabs the bottle of vodka from which she takes a swig.
Bone is taken in by the police as a suspect in the dead girl's murder, but police soon figure out that he is only a witness, and a bad one at that. All Bone can remember is that the other driver's face was shadowed, and that he wore mirrored sunglasses. After leaving the police station, Bone meets up with Cutter and Mo at a local parade. Here, Bone sees oil baron J. J. Cord riding a horse in the parade, and he immediately makes a connection to the man he vaguely saw in the alley.
Cutter quickly becomes obsessed with bringing Cord to justice, while Bone remains reluctant to take action. Cutter's obsession comes not only from a desire for justice in this particular crime, but also because he sees Cord, and other members of the wealthy, priveleged class, as "responsible ... for everything. It's never their ass that's on the line." In this attitude, Cutter most resembles Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, but Cutter's view of class warfare is not treated with the same saritical view as Walter's. Cutter also manages to draw the dead girl's sister (Ann Dusenberry) into his nihilistic black hole, and she goes along with a half-baked plan to blackmail Cord and then turn him over to the police when they get a confession out of him. And after some resistance, Bone also ends up going along with Cutter's plan as well. In a typical noir plot twist, the pressure on Bone to take responsibility causes him to choose the absolute worst situation in which to start doing so.
The film offers no easy answers. Though Cutter is probably right that Cord killed the girl, Bone is also correct: the evidence is circumstantial, Cutter's blackmail plan is poorly thought-out, and Cord's wealth and status make conventional justice impossible. One reason for the film's ambiguity is the fact that Cord remains an elusive figure up until the end of the movie. When we do see him, he is usually wearing mirrored shades and perched atop a white horse--the mode of transportation generally reserved for the hero. This particular symbolism plays out well in the film's final moments, with Cutter attempting to re-appropriate that symbol for its traditional meaning. Though the film's climax has received some negative criticism, I find it to be perfect, with a real "fuck yeah!" moment for Cutter, a final opportunity for Bone to take true responsibility, and a revelation from Cord that reinforces a feeling in the film that the rich are truly not like the rest of us.
Had this movie come out two or three years earlier, we probably would be talking about it in the same context as post-Vietnam films like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. Though Cutter's Way was released in 1981, it almost seems logical to lump it in with some of the great movies of the 70s, especially the neo-noir classics of the period. Jeff Bridges gives one of his casual, seemingly effortless performances--the type of performance for which he should get more credit, but doesn't. But it's John Heard's performance that makes the movie--it's bitter, uncompromising, unsympathetic, and fearless. Everytime I see a movie where an actor plays a similarly damaged character (like Gary Sinese in Forrest Gump), I find those other performances to pale in comparison to Heard's, mainly because they almost always reach for a pathos that Heard eschews.
Picture credits: Internet Movie Poster Awards site