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 didn't spend much time around the idle California
rich, I certainly saw my share of unemployed, aimless despair in the middle '70s, and did my share
of antisocial grumbling about Nixon and the System ... man. Richard Cutter and
Alexander Bone (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 a lot with Vietnam
double-amputee survivor Alex Cutter (John Heard), an alienated malcontent with an extremely
volatile personality that is somehow attractive for his alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). One late night,
Richard thinks he sees local oil millionaire J.J. Cord 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, and
conspires with the victim's surviving sister Valerie (Ann Dusenberry) and Richard to entrap him. But
with all of Cord's power, and the trio's amateur extortion fumblings, it's soon unclear who is
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. Jeff Bridges' Bone, who steadfastly refuses to commit to anything even as his
youthful looks and virility fade, has qualities in common with many tennis bums and marina rats I've met. Alex Bone
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 existence that is just barely existing at all. 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 suicidally
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,
and establish Cutter as an extremist simply because he has absolutely, utterly nothing to lose.
He 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 not only a conspiracy theorist,
but hasn't 'even begun to 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 has kept the paranoid streak but retained 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
Hamlet, of all things. The giveaway is in the very first scene, where Cutter ID's his drinking
companions as, 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, emisaries 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,
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' pouting of Easy Rider. The Queen, Hamlet's mother, is America And Her
Ideals, of which Alex and Richard are indeed loyal subscribers. The murdered King is really Uncle
Sam, who has been killed 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, but is sleeping with the old lady too (to put it politely). Cutter's most advanced
ravings accuse Cord of being guilty even if he didn't murder
the Duran girl, because 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 a new kind of 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 Cutter'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 choice of groceries instead of liquor in
Savant thinks this brilliant thematic conceit makes Cutter's Way into an anti-paranoid
conspiracy film. At the end
of The Parallax View and most others of its ilk, it's pretty
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 does something he never has before, mainly
make a clear-cut commmitted 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 Battle of Algiers, or even good satires like The President's
Analyst, where a milquetoast rebel played by James Coburn is finally put in his place with
the admonition, "Ya wanna change the world? Pick up the gun." Thornburg clearly sided 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 16:9 transfer that brings out the
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 black & white photo art that graced the cover of the
1997 laserdisc release. That and some good liner notes: the lame plot description on the back of the DVD
box wrongly makes the movie sound like a buddy film or a high-octane thriller.
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. It's been a major, 'Hey ya gotta see this,' ever since. Do yourself a favor and set
time aside 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 2001 Glenn Erickson
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