Part of the rash of neo-noirs of the early ‘80s that included Body Heat, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Michael Mann’s Thief, Cutter’s Way, is a cool, gleaming jewel of a movie that, 30 years after it first hit the screens, is finally getting the re-release it deserves.
When Santa Barbara yacht salesman and tennis club gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) kinda, sorta witnesses a murdered teenage girl’s body being dumped, revealing to friend and Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) that he thinks the killer is local oil tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) might not be the smartest move he’s ever made. Ignoring the warnings of his alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichorn), the damaged, broken Cutter, who lost an eye, an arm and a leg to the war, becomes consumed by the idea of nailing the killer. Enlisting the aid of the dead girl’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), and dragging the reluctant Bone along for the ride, Cutter concocts a hare-brained blackmail scheme to flush the killer out, determined to make somebody – anybody – pay…
Stunningly shot with a haunting soundtrack by Jack Nietzsche, Cutter’s Way is a hypnotic, slow-burning thriller and one of the most overlooked great films of the ‘80s. A murky crime thriller for the Me decade, set in an America still suffering from the hangover of Watergate and Vietnam, Cutter’s Way unsurprisingly flopped on its original release. It was too smart, too ambiguous, too damn sad to engage with an audience who were busy sending Dudley Moore’s Arthur and On Golden Pond to the top of the box office chart, it’s bitter cynicism and loss of faith in the American Dream out of tune with the times.
Its heroes are damaged men, both cripples; one physically, the other spiritually. Cutter is a wreck, a paranoid, rage-fuelled modern-day Ahab drunkenly stabbing at the forces that have destroyed him and Heard delivers a charismatic, grandstanding, borderline psychotic performance. By going after Cord, Cutter’s going after the America that betrayed him; all the untouchable rich men who stayed home and got richer while others did their fighting and dying. Bridges’ Bone meanwhile is an emotional cripple, a spiritual coward skating by on his fading good looks and easy charm, joylessly shagging Southern California’s wealthy hausfraus for chump change, a walking advertisement for the malaise infecting post-Watergate America. He doesn’t want to get involved, just wants to be left alone but is sucked into Cutter’s madness, their friendship the one thing in his life he’s not ready to walk away from. Ultimately, their quest for justice leads to tragedy and the self-absorbed Bone finally being forced to take a moral stand.
More an exploration of male friendship than it is a conventional murder mystery, Cutter’s Way is suffused with a hazy melancholy and an uneasy current of foreboding. It’s an intelligent, adult film that has the courage to meander to its devastating conclusion. Rewarding repeated viewings, Cutter’s Way is long overdue for reappraisal and is the best film you’re going to see this week
Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichorn, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliott
Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, based on the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg