By Philip Newton (England)
Cutter’s Way was a film I stumbled across being described as one of the underrated gems of American cinema and regarded as one of the final pieces of filmmaking reflecting the Hollywood renaissance which had been such a prominent force of 1970’s American cinema. This was a strong enough endorsement for me so I began to watch and am inclined to agree with all the plaudits that I read. What I liked about this film was the way it sets itself up with the premise of a thriller however eventually becomes an emotional and fascinating character study of bitter souls and fractured relationships with the initial premise eventually exploiting this turning it into an emotionally charged drama.
The story revolves around three primary characters the first Alex Cutter played by John Heard as a crippled Vietnam veteran who wears an eye patch he is bitter and an alcoholic he initially appears as an unlikeable character, however, over the course of the film we soon discover his inner demons and a clearer understanding of this character becomes more evident.
The second is Richard Bone played by Jeff Bridges a drifter also a playboy sleeping with various women, and finally Mo played by Lisa Eichorn who is Cutter’s girlfriend however secretly desires Bone. When Bone witnesses the covering up of a murder of a young woman he suspects the killer is local tycoon J.J Cord, this sparks interest in Cutter who devises a plan of his own fantasy that is certain Cord is the culprit wanting to blackmail him for his crime. Bone eventually discovers that Cutter’s methods are connected to a vengeful strike back at the system that sent him to war crippling his body and mind.
This was a film that I felt I was drawn into due to the strength of its rich and deep characterization rather than the initial premise and I am pleased that the film focussed on its characters and their motives, I then felt like I could invest in their cause. I could also see the connection with 1970’s Hollywood cinema which was heavily driven by characters and all their nuances, as well as it’s often downbeat comment on the negative backlash that Vietnam had on America, a disillusioned and uncertain country trying to find hope and meaning for their future.
This film could have been a standard thriller that had gun fights and explosions and two dimensional heroes and villains, it instead explores three initially unlikeable characters however shows why they are this way and in the end while still not likeable in the clichéd sense are more understood and accepted for their flaws and weaknesses.
I feel John Heard is most impressive here as Cutter, as a kid I always knew him as the dad in Home Alone and only until I discovered some of his other work getting older did I realise what a talented and versatile actor he is, Cutter is a tragic preacher of justice looking for answers and vindication from any source which he deems worthy for a war which claimed bodies and souls for no worthy cause.
Bridges also is on fine form here as drifter Bone going from one woman to the next however shows some caring for Mo and the underlying tension of this triangle is evident throughout, Mo feels that she should be with Cutter but really wants Bone, Bone likewise keeps his distance due to the loyalty to his friend. Cutter is always aware of this and the underlying desires and hurts of those in these relationships are explored really well and rightfully is a crucial component of the film.
The romance scene involving Bridges and Eichorn is very poignant and Eichorn displays great vulnerability in her uncertainty in life and Bridges gives his character of Bone some heart and compassion which contrasts the outward demeanour of brash and bravado.
Director Ivan Passer always keeps a sense of ambiguity throughout the whole film especially in regards to the killer plotline of whether Cord is really the murderer, it almost doesn’t matter whether he did or not and instead keeps with the characters. The premise almost feels like an intriguing launching pad to explore these themes that are authentic and genuine rather than develop a contrived thriller which would be soon forgotten about.
The final scene also leaves unanswered questions about whether Bone killed Cord? Or what happened to Bone? Sometimes it’s best for us to answer our own questions.