Twilight Time: Cutter's Way (1981) - Reviewed

The late John Heard whom we lost in 2017 is best known for playing the dad in the Home Alone movies and was a familiar character actor often playing mild mannered or clean-cut characters.  Which makes his appearance in Czechoslovakian director Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way all the more jarring and in stark contrast to what we thought we knew about the actor’s capabilities and versatility.  Playing a broken down crippled Vietnam veteran sporting an eye-patch, an amputated arm, a walking stick, overgrown scruffy hair and a beard, many will instantly associate the character of Alex Cutter as akin to Ron Kovic from Born on the Fourth of July and more recently Lieutenant Dan Taylor from Forrest Gump, yet few will recognize Heard in the part.  Exuding hostility, danger and drunkenness, Heard as Cutter is equal parts frightening and pathetic.  To call Cutter’s Way John Heard’s finest hour would be putting it mildly.  And when you pair him up with equally talented actors like Jeff Bridges, you have the ingredients for some truly inspired work afoot!

Opening initially as a murder mystery when Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) inadvertently becomes a suspect due to the proximity of his vehicle to the crime scene, the film evolves into a tragic and truly downbeat character study of two friends, Cutter and Bone (Newton Thornburg’s novel and the film’s original title, I might add) sauntering through life nearing their own mutual expiration dates.  The premise involving the two trying to track down and expose the real culprit behind the murder is merely a setup driving the plot forward, as the filmmakers’ real interests lie with exposing the dysfunctional dynamic these men share.  That both men have a loose triangular relationship with Cutter’s alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) only amplifies the bleakness of the proceedings. 

A picture that feels right at home with the likes of ‘70s character driven classics such as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and particularly Easy Rider, Cutter’s Way can be hard and heavy material yet the impassioned performances and strength of the characters can’t help but invoke our empathy as we come to care for the dirtball Cutter even as we’re put off by his filth and intoxication.  Jeff Bridges was and still is one of the best actors working today and as always he gives a stellar performance as the conflicted yet caring Richard Bone, though it goes without saying the film’s real wonder is John Heard.  He’s electrifying in the role of Cutter and one has to wonder why we haven’t seen him play a character this immersive since.  Watching him in this will give newcomers a newfound respect for his art.

The film also sports its own fair share of brilliant technical merits, starting with the film’s moody cinematography by Blade Runner director of photography Jordan Cronenweth, casting a depressive visual pall over the proceedings.  Though much of it takes place in broad daylight, the overwhelming feeling one comes away with looking at the foggy, noir-ish visual palette is sheer desperation.  Furthering the film’s somber mood is renowned composer Jack Nitzsche’s mournful glass harp score which will invariably remind listeners of his work on The Exorcist and Cruising.  Opening on black and white footage of a cheerful small town parade as the credits appear onscreen, Nitzsche’s score captures the unfocused sense of dread and impending doom perfectly even if we’re not sure why just yet.  Few composers have ever been able to create this mood with such acuity without letting viewers in on the reasons for it.  And of course, renowned Czech director Ivan Passer assembles the picture with sensitivity and heart just shining through the dourness, allowing viewers to see and hear the few and far between moments of tenderness and love.

Initially screened to negative reviews under the title Cutter and Bone and released by United Artists right around the time Michael Cimino was fixing to bankrupt the company with the infamous Heaven’s Gate (also starring Bridges), Cutter’s Way came very close to being shelved outright until a week later positive reviews from Time Magazine and Newsweek began to trickle in and the film’s title was promptly changed before being reassigned to the company’s “Classics” division.  Despite being filmed on a tight budget which was being reduced to cut corners while it was being made with director Ivan Passer lamenting the internal debacle plaguing the film, Cutter’s Way would go on to win the Grand Prix at the Belgian Film Critics Association and is now regarded as a genre classic. 

Seen now, it feels like the final days of uncompromising character driven filmmaking of the 1970s coming to a close and only narrowly escaped the company’s downfall in the wake of Heaven’s Gate’s disastrous commercial reception.  Moreover, fans of the late John Heard unfamiliar with this side of the actor are inclined to seek Cutter’s Way out, a film which plunges deep into the depths of human darkness and yet proves to be a most rewarding emotional experience with a career defining performance driving us headlong into the void. 

-Andrew Kotwicki