People who suspect the Academy Awards are little more than a sham in terms of rewarding real artistic achievement need look no further than the case of Cutter’s Way, one of the most remarkable American movies of the 1980s, which didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination on its release in 1981. The neglect is all the more telling in that the film is no self-indulgent, auteur-driven piece but represents one of those rare and lucky occasions when all the elements fell into place to create a great movie. Indeed, such is the quality of work on display in every department that the lack of recognition in any single category seems perverse in the extreme.
The film begins with the advantage of being adapted from an outstanding 1976 novel, Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornberg, himself an underrated figure in modern American literature whose work is only now receiving wider acclaim. Thornberg’s crime story provides a penetrating portrait of what George P. Pelecanos has described as “America’s festering wound in the wake of Vietnam.” Remarkably, it was written at the time of the war and thus without the benefit of hindsight. More remarkable still is that the film actually improves on the novel in many respects, and credit must go to screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and director Ivan Passer, neither of whose other work even approaches the brilliance on display here.
It opens in the style of a film noir, as Richard Bone (an excellent Jeff Bridges) discovers the body of a teenage girl in a dark, rain-soaked alleyway during the middle of the night. Although barely glimpsing the figure that dumped the corpse, Bone tentatively fingers the culprit as J. J. Cord, an oil tycoon whom he spots the following day in a Santa Barbara parade. Despite Bone’s uncertainty about the identification, his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard in a career-best performance) is immediately convinced of Cord’s guilt and becomes obsessed with exposing him as the killer. A veteran of Vietnam who emerged horribly mutilated with the loss of an arm, a leg and an eye, the embittered, paranoid Cutter seizes on the crime as a means of hounding the fat cats who got rich while others fought their dirty war.
There are shades of the conspiracy thriller in the film’s depiction of Cutter and his reluctant crew taking on the faceless might of the Cord Corporation. Just as significant, though, are the references to Hamlet and Moby Dick, since we can never be sure if Cutter’s pursuit of his prey is anything more than a personal obsession driven by delusion. Unlike the novel, the film remains ambivalent on this point, just as it refuses to fill in the background to the complex relationship between Cutter, Bone and Mo (an outstanding Lisa Eichhorn), the woman who loves Cutter and is loved by Bone. But this sense of ambiguity proves to be the film’s trump card and is played to devastating effect in the treatment of Mo’s sad fate. The long-suffering, alcoholic Mo succumbs to Bone’s charms, only to feel betrayed and despondent when he breaks his promise by leaving her alone after a night of lovemaking. We never know if Mo’s subsequent death is an accident, a suicide or a murder perpetuated by Cord. Yet the emotional impact of her demise is extraordinary and prepares the way for Cutter’s final assault on Cord’s mansion.
The trio of characters at the centre of Cutter’s Way are amongst the finest portraits of disillusioned American outcasts ever captured on screen. An extraordinary creation, Cutter unleashes his rage in every direction before focusing on Cord as the embodiment of evil. Bone is an ageing beach bum who fears commitment, even where his close friends are concerned. And tragically caught between the two men is Mo, a refugee from the counter-culture of the 1960s who still harbours a few dreams as she drinks herself into oblivion. Beautifully played by the three leads, these all too human misfits are viewed sympathetically in Passer’s haunting movie, which also boasts superb cinematography by Jordon Cronenweth and a very fine score by Jack Nitzsche. To paraphrase Cutter, great art deserves a great audience, and this is brilliant, goddamn brilliant.
Watch the trailer here.
IFI Cinemas Manager