Cutter’s Way is based on Newton Thornburg’s book Cutter and Bone, and directed by Ivan Passer. Passer was a Czech filmmaker who, together with Miloš Forman, left after the 1968 invasion—like Forman, he had been one of the premier filmmakers of the Czech New Wave, co-writing A Blonde in Love and The Fireman’s Ball with him before their departure. Passer soon tried his hand in Hollywood, making Born to Win with a young Robert DeNiro, but Cutter’s Way is certainly his best movie and the one that he remains best known for.
At its core, Cutter’s Way is a neo-noir with a post-hippie slant that makes it one of the last “New Hollywood” movies. The film stars Jeff Bridges as Richard Bone and John Heard as his friend Alex Cutter, a Vietnam vet who is living on the fringes of society. Bone’s car breaks down along the way to Cutter’s house, and while he’s stuck on the side of the road, Bone sees an unknown driver stop to throw something in a garbage can. The next day it turns out the “something” was the body of a murdered girl, and Bone is now a suspect.
His buddy Cutter clearly has some post-war PTSD and has been drinking heavily, but he becomes a sort of amateur detective to help his friend. It would not be too far off to compare Cutter with Snake Plisskin—he is that anti-authoritarian, and has complete contempt for the rest of humanity. Cutter soon cooks up a theory about who did it, and they are both drawn into this whirlpool of noirish conspiracy. Cutter is clearly headed towards oblivion, but will he take Bone with him?
Bone himself is a bit of a bum who lives on a yacht, managing to just about get by on his good looks and dumb luck. It’s an alternative trajectory for Bridges’ later, much lighter turn as The Dude—you can be sure this was a film the Coen Brothers really liked.
Heard disappears into the role of Cutter, so it’s a shame that post-Big and Home Alone he got stuck in a comedy direction—parts like this prove that he had some real chops. Passer had seen Heard doing Shakespeare in the Park, and fought to get him for Cutter’s Way. Lisa Eichhorn, who plays Cutter’s alcoholic wife, is also absolutely terrific in her role.
The film has a great sense of black humour, which fits well with Passer’s previous work, especially The Fireman’s Ball with its dark satire of Communism. There is a labyrinthian plot, but that’s not so important. It’s essentially about these two people and the destruction of the American Dream. It definitely shares some DNA with The Parallax View and Chinatown (in fact, it might even be bleaker than Chinatown).
Passer employed screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin for the project, who was also the screenwriter for Tony Scott’s film Revenge, a very nasty neo-noir. From what I gather, Fiskin ended up being more of a script doctor, and his most prominent credit post-Revenge was as consultant producer on the TV show Bosch, which means he was in the writers’ room for the series. His script is a good one: the film keeps you guessing as Cutter and Bone end up embroiled in a twisty blackmail plot to pull in the real killer.
The cinematography is by Jordan Cronenweth, a great cinematographer who was very influenced by film noir. He is best known for Blade Runner, where the noir influence was also obvious. It includes some terrific shots of both the super-wealthy and seedy sides of Santa Barbara.
Unfortunately, Cutter’s Way was wrapped up in the whole Heaven’s Gate fiasco. Both were made by UA in the same year, and when Heaven’s Gate caused so much hassle for the company, it pulled all its resources away from promoting this one—which should have been a moderate hit. The first week of its release, Cutter’s Way was also hit with negative reviews from three major critics, which pushed UA to pull the plug on promotion before a spate of raves. It still did the film festival circuit to much acclaim, but has not been seen as widely as it should be. UA basically did not like the fact that it was a very ambiguous film.
If you are one of the many who have not seen Cutter’s Way, seek it out. It’s a great cynical neo-noir with fantastic character work. This new Fun City Editions release is chock full of extras, including three audio commentaries: new ones from novelist Matthew Specktor, and from assistant director Larry Franco and unit production manager Barrie Osborne; and an archival commentary track with film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Director Bertrand Tavernier contributes a lengthy introduction, and there’s a new short intro from Bridges as well. A new interview with Fiskin about the film, plus interviews with Passer, Eichhorn, and former UA Classics exec Ira Deutchman, are also included. Capping off the selection are two new featurettes—”Gurian’s Way: The Road to Cutter and Bone” and “Cut to the Bone: Inside the Score”—plus the isolated score and theatrical trailers.