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1 review, 6 user ratings

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Cutter's Way
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Extraordinary Cinematic Achievement"
5 stars

While it certainly isn't something that will appeal to the masses, it's immensely rewarding for those willing to take a chance on and surrender to.

Cutter's Way is probably the most subtle, nuanced psychological thriller ever made, and if this makes it sound overly mannered and artily elusive, fret not, for it never once releases its ironclad grip and is utterly spellbinding, lushly expressive yet disturbing to the core, focused yet not impersonally clinical where it's nothing but plot mechanics. In fact, the plot is actually very simple, and it isn't until after the halfway mark when it really starts to kick in. Until then, we're held by the tantalizing texture and the three wonderful lead characters who we've been given ample time to get to know, which is vitally important because the story is essentially character-driven -- there aren't any contrivances uncouthly thrown in for the sole sake of progressing the plot. It's strictly atypical as far as most Hollywood thrillers go, which, again, shouldn't give the impression that it's unreachable -- it's simply on a different responsive level than we're used to experiencing, always vivid and lucid with an understated intensity that sneaks up and floors you in unexpected ways. None of which would be possible if the filmmakers and actors weren't operating at the top of their game. And what better actors could you hope for in non-superstars Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn who've always sublimated sensationalism for dramatic truth that doesn't necessarily guarantee marquee value with the popcorn-munching masses but sure provides enjoyment and surprise for those who truly value consummate acting. And what juicy roles they have. Bridges plays Richard Bone, a rootless sometimes-gigolo working a new gig as a yacht salesman in Santa Barbara; he's not really committed to it and spends his evenings entertaining unsatisfied wives of rich husbands in hotels while expecting some kind of cash tip. After leaving a hotel one rainy night his car breaks down in an alley, and behind him he sees a big car pull in, a stocky man get out and dump something in a trash container and get back in the car; when Bone tries to flag the man down for a lift, he's almost run over. Thinking nothing of it, he makes his way to a bar where he knows the friend he's staying with, Alex Cutter (Heard), will be. Cutter's a disabled, embittered Vietnam war veteran with a patch over his right eye and a missing arm and leg, and his chronic-alcoholic self is far into intoxicated oblivion. In just a matter of five minutes he manages to insult just about everyone at his poker table, including some African Americans with some derogatory terms he doesn't really mean but uses to harmlessly try to get a rise out of. Bone defuses the situation and goes to the house, where Cutter's equally-alcoholic, tolerant wife Mo (Eichhorn) is awakened; attracted to Bone but deeply loyal to Alex, she makes small talk and voices some of her frustrations, but, as usual, she cuts things off before they become serious.

The next morning the police come knocking on the door with some not very good news for Bone: a seventeen-year-old high-school cheerleader's body has been found in the very same alley where Bone's car broke down, and he's pulled in for questioning. They don't really suspect him (though not a rocket scientist, he's wouldn't be dumb enough to leave a car that could easily be traced back to him there), but he can't really give a detailed description of the man he saw, which frustrates the police who have very few leads to go on. He's cut loose and relays everything to Alex and Mo at a crowded city parade, and out of nowhere Bone immediately recognizes someone on a passing float who he's sure was the man in the alley -- a rich and powerful oil tycoon by the name of J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). The three hash it over and Cutter discovers something interesting in the newspaper: that Cord's big-size car was found burned on the beach a mere two hours before the corpse was discovered; and Bone recalls seeing Cord at the hotel right before he left, and it turns out the victim was last seen at a disco club right across the street from there an hour later. Cutter digs some more and finds that Cord has a penchant for picking up teenage hitchhikers, that he likes to get young people's input on local matters. Then the ever-noncommittal Bone who doesn't want to get involved starts backing off, but Cutter won't let him -- he keeps reminding him that he didn't say the man looked like Cord but was Cord. Cutter becomes fixated on Cord as the only logical suspect not just because of the suspicious car business and his being placed at the hotel, but because he represents what Cutter blames for a war that forever scarred him both physically and mentally: the financial elite who never fight their own wars and never have to pay a high price. The already-unhinged Cutter becomes even more so, dogging and needling Bone to do the right thing because "the world is short of heroes." Getting nowhere, Cutter enlists the help of the victim's older sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), and together they come up with a plan to blackmail Cord into paying them off to stay silent on his involvement, and when he pays up they'll take the money to the police. Understandably, Bone and Mo think it's appallingly foolhardy, with Mo going so far as to berate Valerie for thinking she's trying to "cash in" on her sister's death. But nothing could be further from the truth: they want to get this guy who they know in their guts is responsible, and every time Bone objects Cutter rattles his cage to unearth the conscience and sense of responsibility he knows Bone has buried inside. Bone seems to give in and partake in the plan, but then there's a twist to that that throws Cutter completely off the deep end -- hell-bent in seeing justice done and taking things dangerously further, tragic consequences eventually ensue.

The film is anything but plot-heavy, and that's okay because the multi-dimensional characterizations are more than substantial and vivid enough to carry us through the running time. In an unselfish turn playing a selfish man, Bridges doesn't try to act like a "star." He's essentially playing a gutless loser, an unformed person who's never been sure what he's been doing all these years and why; and he's gotten to the age where his youngish looks are starting to pale over -- he seems to be hanging onto his meager mustache as a symbol for his premiere stud days when getting money out of women was a lot easier. (He now has to unsubtly bargain for it after the sweat is dry, like telling a woman that his junky car is badly in need of repairs.) Bridges has the talent to be able to shuck movie-star glamour and concentrate on the business at hand with the confidence that the camera will reach in and get a detailed, understated performance. At the sheer end of the spectrum is Heard, who's got the far showier role and rips into it with the undiluted relish of a starving man tearing into a mouth-watering steak. It's the kind of part actors kill for, and never for a second does Heard let you forget that, which is fine because he brilliantly fills it with guts and gusto and a searing intensity that burns a small hole in the screen. He manages to get every conceivable thing shockingly right -- the mannerisms, the vocal inflections, the ragged walk, and, most of all, the man's soul that permeates through every pore in his wreck of a body. Cutter is prone to more than his share of alcoholic ramblings that talk around things he doesn't have the internal courage to address sober -- he uses liquor and anger as fuel to keep solemnity (a mortal enemy to any drunk who doesn't want to face the harsh realities of life) well at bay. But he can also switch it off when it gets him in trouble. There's a small classic of a scene where, after drunkenly running into his neighbor's car and taunting the man with lewd sexual innuendo about his wife, he goes inside his house knowing the cops are coming, puts on his green army jacket for intended effect, gurgles some mouthwash, goes outside and proceeds to calmly talk his way out of the mess with lies that he make sound like the almighty, irrefutable truth. (When the cop who's sympathetic to Cutter's military service and disability lets him go with just an outdated-license ticket, the neighbor is beyond outrage.) It's probably the best scene Heard's ever played, and I can't think of another actor on this planet who could have pulled it off any better. Equally noteworthy is Eichhorn, who has to hold her own with Heard while keeping within the dramatic parameters of her low-key character, and she succeeds like a true champ. Mo is sexy but not sultry (she mutes that side of herself because Cutter, we assume, is impotent) and she's learned to maintain a sense of humor to keep her afloat -- swigs from the vodka bottle are no longer sublimating her feelings like they used to. And Eichhorn has her own bravura scene where, with crack coming timing in a bravura monologue, she feigns light outrage in front of Cutter and Bone over her having bought fresh vegetables for once instead of liquor. Even in minor roles, Dusenberry and Arthur Rosenberg, as Bone's boss and Cutter's tolerant friend George, etch very fine portraits.

But Cutter's Way isn't just about acting. For the Czech director, Ivan Passer, whose first American film was the affecting George Segal drug-addiction drama Born to Win, has feverishly responded to the material, completely in-sync with its tone and the colloquial dramatics that aren't any less vital because the motivations are so identifiably primal -- it's like he saw it as a challenge to give these cinematic vivacity that an audience could re-awaken to after being inured to in so many standard-fare films that customarily brush over them as a given without proper artistic weight being given to. He's trying to pull us into the basics without doing it in a basic way. Working with the superb cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Passer gives us an opening-credits sequence over slow-motion, blurry images of a passing parade that are strangely unnerving; going against the grain of a joyous, festive feel, it's like a foreshadowing of something dreadful, sinister. Of course we've no idea yet what role a parade will play in the story, but we're helplessly pulled into the effect; Passer gives that rare impression of a director who knows exactly what he's doing, and we're suitably jazzed up in anticipation of what he further has to offer. The film's got atmosphere aplomb -- this is probably the creepiest Santa Barbara has ever looked -- but it's not distractingly poured on thick. Cronenweth doesn't go in for bright primary-color schemes; he emphasizes the secondary ones on the color scale and keeps things a bit dulled and hazy at times, but not artily so. Cutter's Way is essentially a fable, and so, on aesthetic terms, it's not particularly obligated to look like other films or feel like other thrillers; it's not "about" anything controversial or complex even though it's controversially atypical in matter as far as mainstream films go, and complex in its manner without a barrage of too-attention-getting camerawork getting in the way. Plot-wise, there's about fifteen minutes worth, character-wise easily an hour, the rest Passer leaves hanging in the air -- this is what's positively intoxicating and what we greedily breathe and gulp in because we've been so masterfully prepped for it. Excepting some occasional too-fancy chords that sound like a sick banjo, Jack Nitzsche's generally dazzling score is a big contributor, as well -- it's lush with angelic overtones if the evil Gabriel were the angel. You hear it and just know that nothing good is in store for the heroes, and normally this would be too self-consciously pessimistic for the film's own good, but because the characters are so interesting we're invested in them deeply enough that it would feel like betrayal to turn away so we're not brought down with them. We owe them this, Passer is telling us, and that's the point of the film: unselfishly committing to people who find the courage to be unselfish to right a moral wrong without anything to "gain" for themselves. Passer has to work on us to get us to make this commitment just like the characters have to work at it to make their risky commitment, yet after a while, after the seed's been ingrained in our moral quandary, he backs off and doesn't push -- he ultimately leaves it up to us to make that commitment.

The dreamily-told Cutter's Way is from a director who wasn't a dreamer in his previous works, some of which had fancy plot lines he had to stick to and give standard-narrative assuredness to, which are responsibilities any director who takes on such assignments are obligated to endow them with. It wasn't that Passer didn't give off indications of talent, only that he was serving someone else's material that he couldn't really take off from. The technical adeptness was there but not the ingenuity and passion that a lot of auteurs can give off when they're working in their prime and are aligned with a project that they respond to like no other director could. It took eight years since Born to Win for Passer to find his, and after seeing it you can't possibly imagine someone else having laid their mitts on it; Passer has made the film his and only his and forever his -- it's one of those untouchables that you want to encase in fortified glass and periodically keep an eye on so it never gets disturbed by inferior hands. Still, like a lot of film-director dreamers, Passer can stumble when he Thinks, which is a penalty for being a dreamer. While this doesn't mean one necessarily loses sight of the basics (which Passer certainly doesn't here), a dreamer can believe that everything they're attempting will fit in with the overall schema they've envisioned, even if some of those things are rather half thought out and banal. There are sociopolitical overtones that would have been better left as undertones dexterously sprinkled in moderation. Cutter proudly makes it known that he's a liberal, and we're to see this that is why he's so much about stopping Cord regardless that he's a filthy-rich big shot; and that George, who's worried about Cutter's obsession with Cord because Cord is the owner of his yacht business, is gutless because he wants to hang onto his fancy house and the respect of the community, and this kind of simple-minded moral judgment -- that a good-hearted but materialistic conservative couldn't possibly have it in him to want to see a rich murderer put away -- is a bit repulsive and icky. Cutter's hatred of the rich is, of course, irrational, and naturally should be taken not literally but figuratively, but Passer and the screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who adapted from the novel Cutter and Bone (the original title of the film until the studio thought it was too uncommercial), lend sympathy rather than more-appropriate empathy -- they're too much in Cutter's corner on this, and now and again it throws things out of whack, especially when the otherwise-seductive editing rhythms are occasionally off a bit just past the seventy-minute mark, as if Passer were forced to make some last-minute changes in the cutting room. In trying to have it both ways by presenting Cutter as a quintessential nut (but not a loveable nut, for the film would immediately collapse) but a liberal nut who's the very definition of "truth," Passer and Fiskin kinda bobble the ball.

Aspects like these aren't necessary in an entertainment so cinematically well-bodied -- it's accentuating something obvious and tired, and the underpinnings are too woozy for any of it to really formulate in our heads. And Passer can't help other indulgences. There's a scene where Valerie gets the ever-resistant Bone to take her sailing with the intention of persuading him to partake in the extortion plan, and it's going along just fine (wisely, Bone isn't made to automatically let down his guard and rediscover his sense of right and wrong inside of three minutes) until Passer gives us a top-heavy sight of an oil rig far off in the background, and you're tempted to roll your eyes. Maybe Passer wants it to symbolize Cord's omnipresence that can't help but gnaw at Bone's conscience, and there'd be nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but in light of its skewed moral judgment it comes off left-wing environmental-preachy instead. Besides, the placement of the scene isn't so hot, because in the very next scene we get a great, hypersensitized image of Bone looking straight up at Cord's impossibly-high office building that exudes all the necessary omnipresent-menace. This is what happens when a director injects politics into a film merely as a theme and making vague statements, especially one from a former rights-suppressing country (though he's not as insultingly flagrant about it as fellow Czech Milos Forman in his insufferable liberal pictures). But while these miscalculated missteps can't help but punctuate Passer's sometimes-obtuseness (it's almost as if his conscious and subconscious were clashing during the shoot), they're not damaging enough to puncture the proceedings because Passer has put enough filmmaking magic into things so as to render them quibbles you might not otherwise notice if everything else wasn't so spectacularly right. Though Cutter's Way doesn't take place in the past or in some tantalizing locale in particular, it gives the impression of transporting you to a specific time and place where the mundaneness of the outside world hasn't been able to intrude -- like a dream, it's got a glowing circumference that nullifies any infectious agents that might sully its own set of rules and logic. So there are things it dares that at first might seem off-putting but eventually prove themselves being uncommonly spot-on. It's nifty that Cord is an extremely marginal character who we don't see after the parade or even hear a peep from until practically the very last scene -- we're left to our imagination to envision what a human monster he is (we're never in doubt that he's the culprit; we're just not used to seeing so little of a main villain); and it's a neat touch that Cord's social-elite wife, who doesn't seem to care in the slightest that her husband is a murderer, is just as cold-hearted and actually has more screen time -- when Cutter is making loud, brash accusations about Cord on the patio of a country club not knowing that Mrs. Cord is behind them at the very next table, her eyes bore into him with steel daggers, and you know this lady's no one to mess with. She, like this extraordinary film, makes the most indelible of impressions.

Winner of best picture, best actor (Heard), best director and best screenplay at the Houston Film Festival; and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe award for best picture.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15364&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/20/10 15:52:41
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User Comments

5/02/16 Anne no comment 2 stars
3/20/11 R.W. Welch Slow at times, but has a bang-up ending. 4 stars
3/14/11 Steven Drudgeon Cutter's Way is one of the greatest films ever made. 5 stars
3/25/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Underrated classic 5 stars
9/18/06 Jack Sommersby Haunting, uncommonly nuanced, and superbly acted. 4 stars
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  20-Mar-1981 (R)
  DVD: 10-Jul-2001



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