Forgotten Gems: Cutter’s Way
It is a real pleasure to welcome Andrew Skelton, a good friend, to The Family. He is an experienced viewer and has recently decided to try his hand at analysis and criticism. He has slick style. I hope he inspires you to check out the films he recommends in this new series “Forgotten Gems,” meant to turn your eyes back toward many deserving, but overlooked films.
Cutter’s Way [Passer, 1981]
Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way presents an America void of justice and personal responsibility. Passer introduces us to his protagonist, Richard Bone (a young, suave, and oft-shirtless Jeff Bridges), as he trims his mustache and admires his own shirtless visage in a hotel mirror. Rather than engage in meaningful conversation, this self-centered, drifting womanizer leaves his latest sexual conquest to, “visit a sick friend.” Cutter, Bone’s “sick friend,” is first seen attempting to use racial epithets to start a bar fight. After departing this most recent example of Cutter’s self destructive ways, Bone’s car breaks down in a dark alley. While stalled on the side of the road, Bone observes a figure in what will later be identified as a woman’s body in a dumpster.
Bone soon recognizes the figure, which will distinguish Cutter’s Way from other neo-noirs of the 70s and 80s. Cutter’s Way isn’t concerned with who the murderer is, but rather with what Bone will do with his knowledge of that murderer. Bone favors order and status quo, whereas Cutter thrives in chaos. Bone’s primary moral quandary is whether to upend his luxurious lifestyle of sailing (a literal drifting) and sleeping with older women to pursue some form of justice. Cutter, a bitter war veteran, certainly typifies the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American on a search for justice, as he outlines in one of the film’s many well-written and emotional exchanges between these two protagonists. Has affluence and comfort overshadowed its desire for justice?
Jeffry Alan Fiskin’s smart screenplay, based on Newton Thornburg’s novel, presents three damaged characters; Bone, Cutter, and Cutter’s wife, Moe, who have all known each other long before Passer’s camera starts rolling. Their history together has most recently consisted of dealing with Cutter’s drunken rampages. Neither Bone nor Moe show surprise when Cutter drives home drunk one evening, bashing into a neighbor’s car and fence in the process. Cutter talks his way out of any legal fallout from this event by showing imitation remorse to a police officer. This avoidance of legal fallout is exemplifies Cutter’s ability to maintain his lifestyle, but more than that, an America devoid of ramifications.
Cutter’s Way presents a supremely American quandary between complacency and the pursuit of justice. Bone is promised a reliable full-time job by his employer, but to pursue the murderer would put that employment at risk. Typical of 70s neo noirs is the always prevalent undercurrent of paranoia. Robert Horton has already described this beautifully as part of Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project, but one shot of Bone sailing in front of a watchful oil derrick (the murderer Bone spotted was wealthy oil baron J.J. Cord) also captures this sensation. We can see Cutter’s Way marking America at a crossroads, one in which citizens must decide what they’re willing to risk to become heroes.
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