Saturday, January 21, 2012

Overlooked Gems #19: Cutter's Way

Grade: 94 (A)
Before his Oscar-win for 2009’s Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges had a reputation as being perpetually underappreciated. There was no doubt among his peers that he was one of the finest actors of his generation (the finest, I’d argue, and one of the all time greats), but he was never one of those “capital A acting” actors that you’d too often relying on stunt-acting tricks like mannered tics and big Oscar speeches, and he rarely picked the most awards-friendly projects. Bridges starred in the more idiosyncratic projects from great directors (Peter Weir’s Fearless rather than Dead Poets Society), and as a result he might be the ultimate star of the Overlooked Gem. For another example, look no further than 1981’s Cutter’s Way, a seedy character study with a noir structure.
Richard Bone (Bridges) is a boat salesman at a marina in Santa Barbara, California. He drifts through life, rarely speaking up or causing trouble. His closest friend is Alex Cutter (John Heard), a Vietnam War veteran with one eye, one leg, and one arm. Cutter is an unstable, unpredictable drunk known to say anything to get a rise out of someone (an early scene in a bar features him loudly saying several racial epithets to get a rise out of a group of African-Americans). Cutter’s wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), is another drunk deeply dissatisfied with her life. When Bone witnesses a man dumping a young girl’s body in a dumpster, he becomes a suspect in her murder. But Bone thinks that the man he saw might have been local bigwig J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott. He’s not certain about it, nor is he willing to pursue the mystery, but Cutter becomes obsessed; he convinces the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) that Cord is responsible, and strings Bone and Mo along, danger be damned.
 The film was originally released under the title of Cutter and Bone until studio executives demanded the title be changed to avoid being confused as a comedy about surgeons (seriously). United Artists’s famously botched release of the film killed it’s already limited commercial appeal, and director Ivan Passer (a Czech filmmaker whose previous credits include co-writing many of Milos Forman’s early features) never had the same chance to make an impact in America. It’s unfortunate, considering Passer’s deft hand here. Cutter’s Way is a noir, but it focuses more on Cutter’s state of mind and its effect on Bone and Mo than it does on the plot itself. It’s oddly similar to The Big Lebowski, in that it features Bridges as a man content to coast through life, roused out of his day-to-day drift by his unruly friend and a crime.
John Heard might be more familiar to moviegoers as Macaulay Culkin’s dad in Home Alone or other yuppie roles. He’s nearly unrecognizable here under his shaggy hair and unkempt beard (not to mention the disfigurements). It’s extraordinary that his gruff demeanor and unpredictable behavior never seems affected or over-the-top, but rather the actions of a man who’s been to hell and back. It’s a shame he’s rarely had a chance to show his range since (see his work on The Sopranos for more). Bridges has the less showy role, but it’s no less impressive a performance. He reacts to Cutter not with horror but with disappointment or mild irritation, and only as Cutter grows more obsessed with the murder case does his fear truly show through. It’s remarkably subtle work.
The noir plot is used mostly to explore Cutter and Bone’s existence. Cutter is a man who fought for his country only to be dumped, and he’s never trusted “the man” because of it. Bone went to UC-Santa Barbara (where much of the protesting took place) and coasted. Cutter’s resentment and Bone’s guilt is never explicitly stated, but its presence is felt nonetheless. Mo, meanwhile, feels left behind by the world and by Cutter, and her depression is palpable. As Cutter gets mixed up in the conspiracy, Mo and Bone have nowhere to turn but each other for comfort, for both the cruel world and their relationship with Cutter. Cutter can’t prove anything, but he can’t stand to see another young person cut down by the men in charge just because no one will stand up for them. It’s never clear whether or not Cord did kill the girl or not, and a good case can be made for either Cutter or Bone’s argument: Cutter is mentally unstable and unable to prove much of anything, but Bone is never willing to fight for anyone or anything. Who’s right? It’s never clear, but that’s the beautiful ambiguity of Cutter’s Way.

No comments:

Post a Comment