Ivan Passer is a name only familiar to me via Milos Forman. Passer wrote Forman’s 1965 classic The Loves of a Blonde. But in his 1981 offbeat (a word I often hate when in description of film, but appropriate here) thriller he proves himself just as capable behind the camera as with the pen.
Cutter’s Way stars a young Jeff Bridges as Bone, and also features outstanding performances by John Heard (as Cutter) and Lisa Eichhorn (as Mo). For me John Heard = Home Alone, and this is a bit unfortunate. Playing the crippled, delusional, alcoholic Cutter he really controls the film.
The film reminds me in some ways of Arthur Penn’s 1975 masterpiece Night Moves and the 1973 Altman vehicle The Long Goodbye. All three films are neo-noirs of sorts, taking the various characteristics of those classic noirs from 1942-1958 and reworking them. Wherein Night Moves the detective is a clueless former jock and in The Long Goodbye Elliot Gould plays Philip Marlowe as meandering and far less masculine than Bogart, Cutter’s Way makes our primary detective the titular character, and his investigation one of whimsey, boredom, and perhaps distraction from death (suicide).
I’ve been talking a lot about camera and shot selection in previous posts. While Cutter’s Way is certainly deserving of a similar analysis and discussion I’d like to look at a few other elements.
The first is the screenplay for utilizing a fair amount of symbolism but avoiding the heavy-handedness that plagues so many other films attempting similar things. Cutter, as mentioned above, is a cripple. He has one arm, wears an eyepatch, and has a prosthetic left leg. A war veteran, his crippled physical appearance mimics his crippled mentality of life. He physically and emotionally abuses his girlfriend Mo (to whom Bone is also very attracted) and has a serious death wish.
SPOILER here: There are numerous subtle references to Bone and Mo as surrogate limbs, an idea that is taken to its ultimate conclusion at the end of the film, when Bone literally holds the arm of the now-dead Cutter up, and uses his own finger to press Cutter’s finger to the trigger. The subtle fusion of the two is a fantastic image to cut to black on.
I’d be remiss if I did not also mention Jordan Cronenweth’s excellent cinematography. Cronenweth would go on to shoot Blade Runner a year later and those that are familiar with the Ridley Scott film will understand what I mean when I talk about the expert usage of atmospheric lighting. Like the other neo-noirs mentioned, and so many other revisionist post-60s noirs, Cutter’s Way does not rely on high contrast, low-key lighting. Rarely do scenes play out in darkness at all, with the exception of the early crime sequence, which plays as such for narrative reasons mainly. Cronenweth and Passer instead choose to focus their lighting efforts on a look that feels like a consistent California evening or early morning.
Lisa Eichhorn plays the role of the broken, lovelorn, alcoholic (lots of alcoholic characters in this blog lately) to perfection. Cutter’s Way is a film as much about her smile as anything else. It’s a small twitch of the lip, caught somewhere between humor and loneliness that is able to tell so much emotion. She uses her small smile to great effect throughout the film and is in fact one of the more heartbreaking characters I’ve watched onscreen in some time.
Known almost solely for his role as The Dude in Lebowski, Bridges’ early career is really worth examination for those unfamiliar with titles such as Cutter’s, Winter Kills, Fat City, and The Last Picture Show. The man can really act.
Cutter’s Way ultimately encompasses so many themes and is successful in its juggling act. Issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, infidelity, spousal abuse, and delusional behavior (possibly schizophrenia) all play as background to the pseudo menage-a-trois and thriller story that foregrounds the picture.