April 19, 2016
“I have seen people after the war that came from concentration camps, they were violated in their bodies and their minds, and they were contaminated by the violence. They became violent themselves. This is what I wanted to show in Cutter’s Way.” – Ivan Passer
Cutter’s Way is a sickly film, its characters hungover or half in the bag. They have never recovered from the Vietnam War, either from the physical scars from fighting or the guilt from avoiding it. Cutter (John Heard) is the wounded veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a ranting paranoiac lost in his own head. His wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) nurses the loss of her pre-war husband with drink. Cutter’s best friend is Bone (Jeff Bridges), a lithe golden god who makes a living as a gigolo and occasional boat salesman. The trio’s blurred vision focuses upon the corpse of a young girl, who they suspect was murdered by local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cord begins to exert an outsized role in their personal mythology, a symbol of the system, the American way of life, that has left them on the periphery.
Their amateur investigation is a half-cocked mess, and twists around into a blackmail scheme. Their dream of justice is obscured by the thick haze of the Santa Barbara summer, but whether or not they have found the true killer, they have recovered a modicum of belief, belief which ends in a defining act of violence. United Artists didn’t know what to do with this downbeat drama, and released it with little fanfare in 1981. It has had vocal supporters through the years, foremost among them J. Hoberman, and Twilight Time has released a handsome-looking Blu-ray that should expand its cult.
The film is based on Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, originally to be adapted by Robert Mulligan, and with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter. After that fell apart it was packaged with Mark Rydell and Richard Dreyfuss, but that too failed to proceed. Eventually United Artists settled on the Czech emigre Ivan Passer to direct – whose most famous film was still his Czech New Wave comedy Intimate Lighting (1965). He had made four films in Hollywood since, including the hilarious and harrowing heroin film Born to Win (1971, with a great George Segal performance), but none had eclipsed the reputation of his debut. Passer was available and interested, and United Artists just wanted to get the project off their slate. They insisted that Jeff Bridges take the second lead, since he was in UA’s upcoming surefire hit of Heaven’s Gate. They preferred Richard Dreyfuss for the role of Cutter, but Passer was adamant on casting John Heard, after seeing him in a performance of Othello opposite Dreyfuss. Not wanting to lose a third director, UA let Heard have the title role (the title was changed from Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way after its initial NYC release). The memorable zither-heavy score is by Jack Nitzsche.
Passer’s greatest coup was hiring DP Jordan Cronenweth, who veils Santa Barbara in a jaundiced palette – the city seems to expel Cutter and his cronies as a digestive system expels bile. The look of the film was described pungently by J. Hoberman in his Village Voice review: “Jordan Cronenweth’s accomplished cinematography conveys the essence of rot. Everything is orange-gold and subtly synthetic. The film has the burnished Naugahyde look of a sunset seen through the window of a House of Pancakes.” This “orange-gold” was by Passer’s design. He recalled the working process with Cronenweth to Olivier Père:
The casting director showed me some TV movies and I was impressed by the work of Jordan. I was stunned when I met him because he was around 40 and he behaved like if he was 90 years old! The slowest person in the world! I learned that he was not able to do more than 6 set-ups a day, so I adjusted and did long shoots which I could intercut. It is always very difficult to control the color in a film. We couldn’t paint things like Antonioni. It was too expensive. So we took out one color, blue. There is no blue in the film, which is difficult in California because of the sky. That forced me to put the camera above the eye level, camera is always looking a little down, and you have the sense there is some aesthetic order in the film. Jordan was a real artist, always surprised by everything, like a child. He never made a shot that needed some reshoot or correction.
The color blue is not entirely eliminated — there is some unavoidable sky when Bone takes the murder victim’s sister out for a sail boat ride — but it is conscientiously avoided. Having to point the film slightly downward makes Cutter’s world ever so slightly more enclosed, a path of escape eliminated. Not that he would be capable of going anywhere.
Cutter is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, literally half a man. John Heard seems to be channeling some of Iago in his performance, a mercurial manipulator who has both Mo and Bone bend to his will. But he can only bend them so far before they snap, and the cooly self-regarding Bone, played with lizard-slick vanity by Bridges, briefly abandons the cause to to seduce Mo. Mo is in a severe depression throughout the film. She is married to a man she no longer recognizes, in a home that is a memorial to the life she thought she once had. Lisa Eichhorn gives a performance of subdued melancholy, her personality muted and masked by vast quantities of whiskey. She is seeking obliteration and finds it.
Passer was not fond of the original ending of Thornburg’s novel, considering death-by-redneck too similar to that of Easy Rider, so with screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin they created a hallucinatory closer in which Cutter madly crashes Cord’s garden party on horseback, and presumed justice is served. It is almost a burlesque of a happy ending, with its last minute rescue and vanquishing of a sunglasses-clad villain. But by this point “justice” has lost all meaning, what with Cutter’s clumsy blackmail attempts and brutal treatment of Mo, while Bone only shows concern for his moustache. As the final credits roll, Cutter’s violent victory feels very much like a loss.