Cutter’s Way (1981): The most original murder mystery/social critique you’ll ever see

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What do you get when you cross post-Watergate national cynicism, the plight of society’s haves against its have nots, potential serial murder and a narcissistic yet ultimately decent hero complex? Well, you get Ivan Passer’s horribly underrated 1981 masterpiece Cutter’s Way, of course. Based on Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter & Bone (which was also its working title until studio executives thought it was a comedy about surgeons), Cutter’s Way was virtually ignored upon release other than some brief festival buzz, but has rightfully accrued an enraptured cult of admirers over the decades. It’s a strange, funny, moving and fiercely intelligent film that wraps a character study inside a whodunit, with two flawed but nevertheless charismatic vigilante protagonists trying to settle the score.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a listless gigolo/beach bum operating in Santa Barbara, California. In his early 30s, the once Adonis-like lover for hire has already begun to show signs of wear and tear, desperately (and perhaps also delusionally) attempting to cling to his vestiges of youth and carefree idling. When he can’t be found servicing the minor slew of lonely women who still demand his services, he’s sitting around boozing and shit-talking with his best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard). A Vietnam veteran, Cutter lost an eye and an arm to the conflict, and has to use a walking stick due to other permanent, debilitating injuries. Whereas Bone is laid-back and level-headed, Cutter is paranoid, belligerent and more than a little mean-spirited (though he’s a deeply witty bastard with it), and the duo share a home with Cutter’s apathetic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), a fellow layabout and dipsomaniac. To one degree or another, all three of them are contemptuous of modern society and the human condition in general, but they keep on keeping on regardless.

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Whilst leaving another customer satisfied one evening, Bone is making passage home through a dingy alleyway when he eyes something bizarre. A large, shadowy figure throws something into a trash can before leaping into a convertible and hightailing it out of there, and upon inspection Bone discovers it’s the corpse of a young woman, unceremoniously shoved in head-first, legs extended like an unwanted figurine. In a panic, he rushes home to inform Cutter of his experience, but comes to regret ever opening his mouth. Cutter & Mo encourage Bone to contact the authorities, and the latter is shocked to discover that he’s a person of interest, being detained and interrogated but ultimately released for lack of evidence. Cutter believes that something fishy and insidious is afoot here, and proceeds to coerce and cajole Bone and Mo into assisting him in a spot of amateur sleuthing.

After some digging around, a few circumstantial discoveries (and Cutter’s bilious feelings towards the top one per cent) point the finger at one J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), a local tycoon and community pillar. Bone thinks Cord might match the size and shape of the ghoulish alleyway entity, but he just wants to play the three wise monkeys with the entire situation. Undeterred, Cutter vehemently formulates a conspiracy theory, convinced that Cord is their man, and states that it is their duty to lead him into a trap of incrimination. It’s partially motivated by the sentiment that a murderer should be brought to justice, but the fundamental catalyst is Cutter’s bitterness at having to eke out an existence on the fringes after sacrificing so much for his nation, while the highest-echelon folk like Cord can do whatever they please and never face consequences. He’s pissed off for the girl, for the poor and disenfranchised, but ultimately for himself.

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Arriving at the tail-end of 1970s cinematic idiosyncrasy, Cutter’s Way is a mystery movie where the mystery is ultimately tangential. The personalities, wants, desires, highs and lows of Cutter, Bone and Mo are what drive the arcs, and the film is deftly poetic in its handling of the ambiguity surrounding Cord’s alleged killing of a girl. In the finest performance of his career, John Heard plays Cutter as an unpredictably violent, irascible nutjob and latter-day pirate, coincidentally looking like a more unstable and bedraggled version of Snake Plissken from Escape From New York, released the same year. His rage and latent sociopathy are predominantly communicated in blackly comedic, eloquent diatribes and brutal insults, and whenever he treats either Mo or Bone like shit or declares his undying love for them, he is sincere in both instances. Bridges infuses his role as Bone with his characteristic insouciant likability, and with Eichhorn’s turn as the rough-edged yet vulnerable smartass Mo, the three leads create insanely good chemistry with utterly believable performances. The authenticity in their relationship is knock-you-off-your-chair pungent.

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While the film has elements of thriller, psychological drama, buddy movie and message movie, it’s really a sui generis humanistic work. The fact that it manages to confidently and maturely tackle themes such as the perils of ageing, the effects of alcohol abuse, governmental neglect of military veterans and the sociocultural ramifications of rampant capitalism whilst still maintaining intrigue surrounding the central investigation is a thing of wonders. Cutter & Bone are both discernibly selfish, delusional people but that is counterbalanced by a conquering pro-social empathy, they can certainly be dickish, but they mostly keep to themselves, their consciences rendering it impossible for them to sit back and let Cord get away with it (if indeed, he did the deed). Mo is simultaneously exasperated by and deeply caring of the pair, struggling to be the unit’s glue as Cutter’s indignation becomes dangerously erratic. They’re three losers who essentially look for the wrong place at the wrong time because there’s nothing else to do.

It’s undoubtedly the English-language magnum opus of late, great Czech director Ivan Passer, and a film I have been deeply in love with since I first saw it many years ago. With intimate, powerful performances coupled with whipsmart, badass dialogue, it is sharply humorous, deeply poignant, angry, weird and unforgettable. If you want cerebral cinema that is proudly unconventional and hard-hitting, you needn’t look any further.

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