Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Cutter's Way is one of Savant's very favorite films. Although I escaped Vietnam duty (by mercy of a 307 number in the 1971 draft lottery) and spent little or no time around the idle California rich, I certainly saw my share of unemployed, aimless despair in the middle '70s. I also did my share of antisocial grumbling about Nixon and the System. Richard Bone and Alexander Cutter (the movie was abortively released first as Cutter & Bone) are two very key characters in my consciousness, and writers Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and Newton Thornburg have used them to fashion what is really a thinking man's Easy Rider.
Disenchanted yacht bum Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) hangs out with Vietnam double-amputee survivor Alex Cutter (John Heard), an alienated malcontent with an extremely volatile personality that his alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) somehow finds attractive. Late one night, Richard thinks he sees local oil millionaire J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott in an alley where the bludgeoned body of a teenaged girl is found the next day. Richard would like to forget it all, but Alex seizes upon the possibility that the arrogant Cord might truly be brought to account for the crime. He conspires with the victim's surviving sister Valerie (Ann Dusenberry) and cajoles Richard into helping entrap the oil baron. But considering Cord's power, and the trio's amateur extortion fumbling, it's soon unclear who is trapping whom.
Cutter's Way is poignant, powerful, funny and tragic. The vivid characters perfectly embody the fringe dwellers in the lush California lifestyle: educated bums, resentful & self-loathing intellectuals. Steadfastly refusing to commit to anything even as his youthful looks and virility fade, Jeff Bridges' Bone has qualities in common with tennis bums and marina rats I've met. Alex Cutter is the essential anguished man, whose wit and friends are the only things separating him from a life on Skid Row. His enabling wife Mo, so perfectly incarnated by Lisa Eichhorn, drinks her way through a disability-check life on the edge of existence. So many of us who were aimless (or like my friends, just had frustratingly remote goals) ended up finding any kind of comfortable niche that came along, resenting our own seduction by the commercial frills and luxuries of a society we didn't respect.
Every scene in this gem is a keeper, with dialogue and situations that surpass anything in Stone, Lynch, or Tarantino's entire output put together. Alex's wild antics, whether foolishly baiting the black pool players in the local bar or smashing into the car next door just for the fun of watching his neighbor go ballistic ("Ha Ha, I better try that again!") are better than believable. They establish Cutter as an extremist simply because he has absolutely, utterly nothing to lose. Cutter latches onto the Cord case for personal reasons known only to him and Cord's lackey at the yacht sales office, George (Arthur Rosenberg), and freely admits that he's a conspiracy theorist: "I haven't even begun to turn my imagination loose on this one!" All three leads have an incredible commitment to their roles, with Heard taking top honors by convincingly portraying a one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed cripple mostly by simply acting.
The book Cutter & Bone is even bleaker than Ivan Passer's movie, and is marred by a conclusion that closely mimics the end of Easy Rider. Instead of the film's feverish finish, the book has our pair follow J.J. Cord inland to his farm hacienda, only to independently fall victim to the industrialist's long and deadly reach. The film retains the book's paranoid streak but adds its own brand of ambiguity. (movie spoiler) If you look at the first scenes again, it isn't absolutely convincing that the girl who makes eyes at Bone at the El Encanto is the murdered Duran girl. J.J. Cord's infuriating attitude would be the same whether or not he was a psychopath, and his draconian security forces are no exaggeration either.
What brought Cutter's Way into focus for Savant was the realization that it's a loose transposition of Hamlet, of all things. The giveaway is in the very first scene, where Cutter introduces his drinking companions as, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, emissaries from the Danish court." I remember them from the book because they were the Ericksons, identified as a pair of Weather Underground radicals passing quietly through Santa Barbara.
The Hamlet parallel works like this: Richard Cutter and Alexander Bone, one a borderline mental case and the other merely indecisive, together represent the Hamlet character. (spoiler) George's father was indeed murdered in the long-ago past by his old partner Cord, who usurped his place in big business, keeping George alive almost as a trophy. The emasculated George is living proof of Cord's Prince-like power over his domain. But the bigger parallel is what elevates Cutter's Way above the simpleminded 'America is Evil' posturing of Easy Rider. The Queen, Hamlet's mother, is America And Her Ideals, of which Alex and Richard are indeed loyal subscribers. The late King is really Uncle Sam, who has been murdered by Corporate Big Business, represented by J.J. Cord. Cord has not only taken on the mantle of entitlement to all of America's vast riches, he's also sleeping with the old lady (to put it politely).
Cutter's doesn't really care if Cord is guilty or innocent. In Cutter's view Cord is already guilty, already responsible, for all of it -- Vietnam, Cutter's wounds, George's trembling subservience. Corporate tyranny has induced an economic class system in what used to be an America where most companies were still run by 'people', and the power of law and government still meant something. Old and corrupt, Cord's lust for power drives him to victimize the young, with their strength and their undiluted sexuality. (additional spoiler) Cord killed George's past and now he kills Cutter's future with the murder (?) of Mo. In the book she's newly pregnant, which accounts for her choosing groceries instead of liquor in one scene.
Savant thinks this brilliant thematic conceit makes Cutter's Way into an anti-paranoid conspiracy film. The wild tales of The Parallax View and most others of its ilk make it easy to dismiss the idea that sinister armies are secretly using technology to enslave us. At the black, bleak end of Cutter's Way, Richard Bone finally takes a stand and makes a clear-cut committed decision, as life altering as a decision can be. His act of 'terrorism', done in cold blood instead of Cutter's heated passion, is the best scene of its kind Savant can think of. It's more potent and compelling than anything in avowed radical films like The Battle of Algiers, or even good satires like The President's Analyst, where James Coburn's milquetoast rebel is finally put in his place with the admonition, "Ya wanna change the world? Pick up the gun." Thornburg clearly sides with his Weather Underground 'emissaries from the Danish court' and his book is one of the few successful examples of radical literature to emerge from the 60s. And Ivan Passer & Co. did a fantastic job turning it into a movie.
MGM's DVD of Cutter's Way is a simple affair with a great enhanced transfer that brings out the richness in Jordan Cronenweth's often dark and moody photography. The neon El Encanto sign in one of the very first shots is finally completely legible. Jack Nitsche's haunting, quirky score and the brassy Mariachis used to represent J.J. Cord's Santa Barbara empire come across alive and kicking on the soundtrack. The lone extra is the rather good original trailer. The only thing Savant misses with the DVD is the beautiful B&W photo art that graced the cover of the 1997 laser disc release. That and some good liner notes: the lame plot description on the back of the DVD box wrongly presents the movie as a buddy film or a high-octane thriller.
This is a classic example of a film that lots of enthusiastic fans (and most of the people at its own studio) have never heard of, yet is a bona fide winner, a stealth classic. So it's nice that MGM is bringing it out now. I was totally unaware of its existence until it showed up on cable TV only a few months after its short theatrical life. Cutter's Way has been a major, "Hey ya gotta see this" ever since. Do yourself a favor and set aside some time for it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cutter's Way rates:
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Packaging: Amaray case case
Reviewed: August 5, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson