Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Cutter's Way

AKA  Cutter and Bone
Year of Release  1981
Country  USA
Length  109 min.
Director  Ivan Passer
Screenwriter  Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based on Newton Thornburg's novel Cutter and Bone)
Cinematographer  Jordan Cronenweth
Editor  Caroline Ferriol
Original Score  Jack Nitzsche
Cast  Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Arthur Rosenburg, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliott

Beauty  The beauty of Cutter's Way has less to do with its visuals - Jordan Cronenweth's camerwork is pleasant, but more functional than showy - than from its uncommonly graceful look at hippie burnouts living in a world that no longer has a place for them.  The stoned nonchalance of Jeff Bridges' portrayal of slacker gigolo/boat salesman Richard Bone provides excellent underplayed support for John Heard's livewire take on drunkenly furious and paranoid Vietnam vet Alex Cutter.  Both characters are given wonderfully written introductions that instantly establish where they are in their life and what their past has been, even though neither scene really spells much out or has anything to do with the film's plot.

Strangeness  The way that that plot plays out is not only one of the more elegant aspects of Cutter's Bone but also one of its strangest aspects.  The story is plain to the point of being generic:  Bone randomly witnesses a man dumping a body in a dumpster (though, because it takes place in a heavy rainfall and his view is obstructed, he initially has no idea what's happening).  When the dead body becomes a news story, Cutter begins an informal investigation that starts off as a joke, yet becomes deadly serious when Bone thinks that he recognizes local business tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) as the man in the car.  Director Ivan Passer and screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin stretch seemingly tangential scenes out far past the point that they need to go to establish what's happening in the story; indeed, many of these scenes have little or no direct relationship to the plot, which is gradually pieced together through a series of slice of life moments rather than ordinary exposition.  Yet the most beguilingly odd aspect of Cutter's Way is Heard's performance.  The unpredictability of his character, who can go from hilariously drunk to frighteningly drunk at the drop of a hat, is rivetingly unknowable yet feels completely lived-in and plausible at all times.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The Altman-esque angle that the story is viewed from puts the emphasis on the characters and the culture they represent, rather than the murder mystery itself.  Many elements of the plot are left ambiguous, to the point that it isn't entirely clear whether Cutter and Bone are involved in a noble quest to avenge an injustice (in which case the film could be seen as an indictment of Bone's slacker lifestyle, as he is reluctant to get involved in an important situation) or a Quixotic folly (which would make the film a critique of Cutter and his freewheeling paranoia).  The film's power comes from the way that it is able to make both Cutter and Bone's approaches to the situation seem equally heroic and foolish.

Tradition  Stylistically, Cutter's Way is in line with '70s neo-noirs such as The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and Night Moves.  The aforementioned Altman-esque angle that the story is told from is somewhat reminiscent of the former film, while the sinister glimpses of the upper-class villains resemble Chinatown, and the multi-faceted view of an adrift counter-culture isn't far away from the one depicted in Night MovesCutter's Way's story, involving a Jeff Bridges-played hippie bum and his paranoid Vietnam vet buddy investigating a crime committed by a wealthy tycoon, clearly had a huge influence on The Big Lebowski.

Repeatability  The way that the viewer interprets a number of Cutter's Way's more ambiguous plot elements can give the film different meanings on different viewings.  For example, it seems equally likely that the death of Cutter's long-suffering wife (Lisa Eichhorn) was caused by suicide (as Bone believes) or that it was a Cord-ordered murder meant to intimidate the amateur sleuths (which is Cutter's take).  It also isn't clear whether Cutter is correct about Cort having killed their friend George's (Arthur Rosenburg) father, or whether he's merely being paranoid. 

Viewer Engagement  The film's emphasis on different points of view (that often seem equally valid) forces the viewer to ask themselves where they stand in relation to the major characters and their response to the tragedy of the murdered girl.  Do we identify with the passive Bone, the rioutously angry Cutter, the basic desire for justice of the victim's sister (Ann Dusenberry), or the let's not-rock-the-boat mentality of George (who works for Cort and understandably doesn't want his friends jeopardizing his career)?  Or are we simply exhausted by all of the options, like Cutter's wife?

Morality  Cutter's Bone gives equal credence to all of these points of view, without letting any of its characters - and therefore the viewer - off the hook.  Since we never know any more than the characters do, we can emphasize with each of their situations, but we can also see that they might be unreasonable, unfair, and uninvolved at times, which means that none of their responses to the murder seem entirely satisfactory.  Whether the viewer identifies with Cutter, Bone, and/or one of the other characters, the final abrupt cut to black and silence leaves haunting doubts about the degree to which any of these approaches to life make sense.

Cutter's Way passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Sergei Eisenstein's two-part epic Ivan the Terrible, which has appeared on Sight & Sound's polls of the Top 10 films of all time as well as a book called The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and how they got that way)

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