Saturday 18 May 2024

Article: The Jagged Edge within Cutter's Way

Cutter’s Way is a fascinating film anomaly. Released in the 80s, yet the cynical 70s tone looms over it. The wounds of Watergate and Vietnam fester from scene to scene. The blockbuster ball had started to roll at this point. All the while, Cutter’s Way (originally Cutter and Bone) fell prey to internal politics. Studio executives had no way of compartmentalising this neo-noir. There was no space for its ambiguity and contempt once the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) rolled onto screens. Sliding in a few months after Cutter’s Way's dismal March release. As the decade had Hollywood move away from the grimness of the 70s era, films like Cutter’s Way felt even more uncommon. However, we should be glad this almost-forgotten gem has supporters. Radiance Films
 garnered a hefty Blu-ray release for starved noir fans to discover. Not many present-day gems would gain such a second life within the cold-blooded streaming era.

The woozy opening of Cutter’s Way evokes a very different period. A marching parade dances giddily in slow motion while Jack Nitzsche's haunting score opens proceedings. The image starts in black and white before bleeding into colour. A quiet primer that seemingly suggests a shocking ending for the film we're about to watch. The juxtaposition of aw-shucks Americana imagery alongside the anxiety-riddled audio composition hints at something dreadfully amiss with the picturesque display. These opening credits remind me of the end credits of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015). Another film that utilises American iconography ironically. The most interesting American movies seem to love dealing with the country's dying innocence.

This displacement never leaves the viewer once the story opens and the characters are introduced. It’s Fiesta night and Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is caught in a post-coital exchange with a married woman (Nina van Pallandt). A scene not too out of place if it were found in American Gigolo (1980). Amusingly (Nina) as the satisfied recipient of a roll in the hay with a man named Bone is of little surprise. Van Pallandt was an object of temptation in neo-noirs such as The Long Goodbye (1973) and the previously mentioned American Gigolo. However, the somewhat callous nature of Bridges’ Bone is the eye-opener here. His golden boy good looks hide an insensitive personality. The exchange between them is a beautiful set-up of character. Bone sleeps with the woman under a flimsy pretence that he's selling her husband a yacht. Being an absolute chancer, Bone then nonchalantly bums cash off the same woman using a truthful untruth about seeing an ill friend in his clapped-out car. We discover that both elements of his statement have a kernel of fact. The vehicle needs more than a service. And Bone indeed does go to see an ill friend. Yet the money is clearly for neither of these things. This short scene sums up its main character more comprehensively than many movies.

After his car claps out on him, Bone spots a man dumping what looks like a body into a trash can before driving off. Almost hitting him. Thinking nothing of it, Bone heads to the local bar and meets his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard). Cutter is his sick friend. A one-armed, one-eyed Vietnam vet with a limp in his stride and a chip on his shoulder. Cutter is a loud, obnoxious drunk who appears to be doing his best to win gold in the Offence Olympics. He seemingly does everything he can to upset and distance everyone around him. His first act is racially abusing some black men at a bar where Bone meets him. This is just the start of his antics. 

Mo (Lisa Eichhorn); Alex Cutter's long-suffering wife, is soon introduced. Finding out that Mo and Cutter are in matrimony is baffling enough. When it is realised that she and Bone haven’t blown caution to the wind, the situation becomes more difficult to believe. The inebriated jibes from a deeply resentful Cutter suggest that something may already have happened. Or that he feels it will. Bone is a callow shirker. Cutter is the insufferable loud bore. Yet Mo is the quiet bond which holds the dysfunctional trio together. It’s easy to forget that Mo has reluctantly joined the male duo in some scenes. She slowly absorbs into the background while Cutter brings the world to rights, while Bone cringes. But Mo's silence is loud. Blowing out the water the juvenile idea that the number of words in a female performance is paramount to said character’s actual actions. To know the tale of woe that has fallen upon this trio is to study her face. Although she speaks much less than her male cohorts, she can chop either man down with her comparable wit at a moment's notice.  When she does speak, often in the way of her withering, wounding put-downs, her words count.

But what did Bone see that night of the fiesta when the car broke down? His thoughts on the matter take up less space than even the sentence I used to describe them. Go back. It’s a short line. But when he half mentions the situation to Cutter, a man whose scars have him seeking righteous indignation on anyone he feels deserves it, suddenly a mystery is afoot.  This dysfunctional trio soon embark on a presumed shaggy dog story based on the murky events of what Bone saw. The urge to find out what happened becomes driven by an animated Cutter, whose desire to bring who he believes the murderer is to justice only becomes more deranged from scene to scene. One unsettling moment comes early on when Cutter listens to Bone’s story. For a man who seems to bleed whiskey, the concentration and soberness in his voice at that point become quietly concerning.

Cutter’s Way is a film with murder as an inciting incident at its heart. Yet the film keeps a viewer on tenterhooks as to whether the suspect, almost arbitrarily labelled as the killer by Cutter, ever did anything wrong. The story is far more interested in the bitter regret that gnaws at these characters every day. Anchored by three superlative performances, Cutter’s Way plays out like a grim kitchen sink drama. Bone’s uninterest in solving the so-called case highlights his trait as a commitment phobe. Cutter is extremely happy to remind Bone that he doesn’t see things through. Yet looking at the scant “evidence” of the case, Cutter’s drunken quest for revenge feels like the ramblings of a madman. He is a self-proclaimed man of the people, angry at a world that steps over veterans like himself. As for Mo? Her pain is etched across her face. A small moment has her wordlessly watch children playing, while her husband drunkenly grizzles on. Once again, with such simple economy, the film fills the audience in on the character's state of mind more effectively with brief reaction shots over typical, obvious dialogue. 

These haunted characters allow Cutter’s Way to disarm a viewer. The murdered girl is almost insignificant. But then the person who talks about her murder the most is a war-torn vet who was never at the scene in the first place. The limping, one-armed man with an eye patch believes everyone else is blind to the facts. The most disturbing thing about Cutter’s Way is how it plays out a second time. At first, it’s watched through the eyes of Bridge’s Bone. Playing off like an offshoot of his character in The Last Picture Show (1971) or a precursor to his iconic role in The Big Lebowski (1998). He is our passive protagonist, guiding us past John Heard’s showy performance of Alex Cutter. Holding us a certain amount of distance away from Cutter’s charismatic mania. The second watch, however. It’s almost impossible to watch it through Cutter’s eye. Does his conspiracy theory make sense? Maybe not at the time, but his hostility certainly shapes things. The film pushes you more than a few steps towards his demented claims. Suddenly the coastal backdrop that felt unimportant to the drama in the forefront the first time around takes on a new sinister angle within a rewatch.

In Cutter’s Way and the equally tragic Born to Win (1971), director Ivan Passer incisively captures the cynicism many Americans seemingly held at the time of release. His outsider perspective gives the film its strength. A notable director of the Czech new wave of the 60s, people often knew him more for his lighter fare. However, two of his American films hold a remarkable toughness about themselves, a viewpoint which suited the downbeat cynicism laid bare by the era.  In Born to Win, Passer welds the circular bleakness of drug addiction in a way that keeps the film from feeling like an After-school special. Yet in Cutter’s Way, the filmmaker finds something even more haunting. A country so blighted by a war it lost and a lying president that rot has crept in. Eating away at the home-spun fantasy that many have happily bought into. Be it Bone’s commitment phobia or Cutter's deep-seated anger towards the establishment. These characters have been broken down by the promises that both America and each other failed to keep.  These frustrations are laid bare within this compact small-town story.

Such ennui allowed a sickening rot to set in. Corroding the happy home-spun fantasy brought into by many.  Bone hides early adultery with a beige capitalist alibi: selling a boat to a wealthy patron. During the Founders Day parade, Cutter wiles away time by making suggestive comments about the young girls in the procession. He does so in earshot of Mo. The moment has a touch of Virginia Woolf to it. Cutter makes a habit of making dubious comments disguised as vindictive jokes. Often grimly marking himself as a crippled cuck to get a rise out of his dispassionate associates. At one point Mo, who's grown sick of the trio's listless existence, buys fresh food as if such a superficial gesture would make an instant difference to their mindsets outside of a TV commercial. Eichhorn is so quietly moving through the narrative as the film's heart. Wait until halfway through when said heart bleeds. It's agonising.

By stripping away the exceptionalism found in so many American movies, Cutter's Way brings an honesty that America loves to shy away from.  It’s worth noting how the film is released only months before audiences fall in love with an adventurous historian who just so happens to masquerade as James Bond with a whip. Almost a decade before Cutter Way, audiences gained a deep-rooted connection with Clint Eastwood’s solitary, rule-breaking law enforcer, Dirty Harry (1971). Nowadays, the audience's embracement of the exceptional hero resides even longer with us. The era of franchises started and progressed with films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had us look to the heavens for our heroes. It's fascinating to watch Passer ignore this. Instead, scratching beneath the surface to where others are reluctant to itch. Digging into a world lacking in heroes. Opening the door to a realm of indifference even before the gen-x cynicism of the 90s. The resentment these people harbour has infected all three of them deeply. It sticks to them. Refusing to let go. Causing their self-worth to weaken before spiralling outwards towards a country incubating their anger. The power of Cutter’s Way comes from how honest the dishonesty is. We watch the despondence of this trio of lost souls and realise how easy it could be for such a heinous murder to idly pass by.

The saddest thing about Cutter’s Way is that its muddled release holds a similar haplessness to the film's own characters. By the time it was released the numbing obsession with the superficial was complete. Audiences wouldn’t be invested in the crumbling visage of a once innocent America in the same way that anyone other than Cutter would be disinterested in a conspiratorial murder mystery. It’s not like cynical neo-noir is new. Yet a sense of brevity is found in Passer viewing America as the story's femme fatale. A nation far too unwieldy and rotten for its own good is now happy to delude itself with seductive yet self-centred idealism. It will placate the people with pageantry and parades. Blindly ignoring its victims. Our unfortunate trio are nothing more than the fall guys to the façade. In its own way, Cutter’s Way has deeper wounds than others. And the injuries are turning septic. Passer remarked in an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum that the film is about what it takes to pull the trigger. The scary thing about Cutter’s Way as it fades to black is that even if people find the strength to pull the trigger, they may still be left in the dark. The film’s shocking yet ambiguous final moments rubber stamps this notion. For two hours, Cutter’s Way drags its viewer through the distorted mind of a veteran broken by war. By the end, Ivan Passer’s film considers how much we should believe him. The answer gets more disturbing the more you think about it.

Cutter's Way is out on Amazon Video at the time of writing. But try and find the limited edition Blu-ray by Radience Films if you can. 

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