March 13, 2012

Reader's Choice: Cutter's Way (1981)

Directed by Ivan Passer. Starring Jeff Bridges ("Richard Bone"), John Heard ("Alex Cutter"), Lisa Eichhorn ("Mo"), and Ann Dusenberry ("Valerie Duran"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (MGM)
Running time: 01:48:52
Country: USA

Picked by Rupert Pupkin

Richard Bone is a slacker and laid-back former beach bum who simply exists with no evidence of having long-term goals (an unintentional precursor to "The Dude"). His life changes forever when his car breaks down in an alley at the same time that a mysterious figure is disposing of a woman's carcass. Having not known he was bearing witness to something criminal at the time, Richard disregarded it as some weirdo messing around in the alley before getting in his car and almost running Richard over on the way out. With Richard's car at the scene of the crime the next day, the police turn their attention towards him and act accordingly. The victim's sister, Valerie, comes into the picture, but fortunately for Richard she decides to work with him instead of against him. It's evident that there's something fishy going on in regards to the murder of Valerie's sister, and they'll do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of it. Something interesting is finally happening in Richard's life, but due to his lack of motivation and carefree attitude, he needs someone to kick him in the balls and get him going. This is where Alex Cutter comes into the picture.

Richard and Cutter are an unlikely pair of friends; whereas Richard plays it safe for the most part, Cutter is a loud and obnoxious Vietnam vet who's physically and mentally damaged from his experiences in the war. They live together along with Cutter's alcoholic and depressed wife, Mo. Despite their different personalities, the friendship seems absolutely genuine, with Richard playing the older brother role even though it's never really treated or portrayed as such. In fact, both Richard and Cutter look after each other in different ways. Richard is always there to pick up the pieces when Alex drunkenly gets himself into trouble, and Cutter is almost a manifestation of Richard's conscience, or perhaps the fearless alter-ego that he wishes he could embrace.

Despite my synopsis making it out to be one, CUTTER'S WAY is not a murder mystery in the traditional sense. It's a murder mystery in the same way that David Lynch's BLUE VELVET is a murder mystery; there's a whodunit element to the film, but it's not the main focus. Instead, the crime element of the narrative seems to be a catalyst for what is basically a character study that could be seen as a neo-noir of sorts.

CUTTER'S WAY is a movie that I had heard very little about before Rupert picked it for me to cover; I'd heard the name mentioned in certain places, but that's about the extent of it. When I did a little bit of research beforehand and familiarized myself with the cast, I thought I'd have a good idea of what the film would be like, but to say that it ultimately caught me off-guard would be an understatement. What I wasn't expecting from the film was how odd it was in tone and how complex it was in terms of the characters. Jack Nitzsche's slow, haunting score, for example, is somewhat eerie and seems like it would be better suited for a horror movie. The way the music contrasts the early 80's Southern California setting is initially strange, but it surprisingly works in the long run and creates an off-kilter mood that's maintained for the duration of the film.

Speaking of contrasting, the casting of Jeff Bridges and John Heard in the lead roles is great, with Bridges being the perfect guy to oppose Heard's flawed and crippled character. Both give outstanding performances, especially Heard, who does one of the best unintentional Nick Nolte impressions I've ever seen or heard (no pun intended) with his intense portrayal of the damaged Vietnam vet. Coincidentally, Nick Nolte was actually considered for the part of Cutter but didn't get the role for whatever reason. It should also be said that Lisa Eichhorn is wonderful as Mo, successfully evoking a feeling of emotional weariness with subtlety. The relationship between Mo and Richard is interesting as well; throughout the film there seems to be an uncomfortable and awkward chemistry that culminates with some rather unfortunate behavior between the two towards the end of the film once this tension is addressed.

Very early in the film, I was positive that I would fall in love with this movie, for the reasons I already mentioned, and also for the exceptional and extremely quotable dialogue. I was sold on the characters right from the start, but I had some issues with how the film ultimately played out that, in my opinion, took away from what could have been a truly great piece of American cinema in my eyes; not to say that it isn't, but I personally found it to be disappointing in some respects. To sum up the problems I had with the film as concisely as possible, I'll just say that the back end of the film and especially the ending itself seemed a bit sloppy and, quite frankly, anti-climactic. To be fair, though, I haven't read the book that this movie is based on, so the unusual nature of the back end of the film could have been inevitable because of the source material. And who would've thought that John Heard, who's made a career out of playing such ordinary characters, could be capable of a performance as powerful as the one he gives here.

Score: 7

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