Though it never sets foot in Southeast Asia, Cutter’s Way is a great Vietnam movie. Like many of the neo-noirs of the 1970s and ’80s, it’s a shaggy-dog story propelled by a combination of paranoia and justifiable fear, yet where other films of its ilk derive their tension from unseen omnipotent forces, director Ivan Passer’s opus stems directly from the lingering trauma of veterans and civilians alike. The film begins with the discovery of a corpse in a dumpster, and from there it spirals into the fevered imaginations of its protagonists, who don’t seek the perpetrator so much as someone to blame for their own miserable lives.
The body in question is found by Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a feather-haired gigolo introduced bumming some extra cash from his trophy-wife client and half-heartedly attempting to sell her on a boat. Feckless and aimless, Bone nonetheless seems well-adjusted when compared to his best friend, wounded vet Alex Cutter (John Heard). Cutter enters the film referencing Moby-Dick, and with his eye patch and artificial leg, to say nothing of his general furious stupor, he immediately marks himself as an Ahab in search of revenge for his maiming. When Bone tells Cutter of the body, his friend sets out in search of a culprit and quickly settles on J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), a local oil magnate.
From the outset, it’s clear that Cutter’s deduction skills are specious at best, and Bone spends most of the film following along with his friend, less out of conviction than a lack of anything better to do. Bridges subverts his laconic charm, rendering his handsome looks and taciturn delivery as anomie; Bone doesn’t even seem to satisfy his clients, who gaze at his physique post-coitus with a look of mild perplexity, as if they expected more from him. Bone is the embodiment of the Me generation at the end of a failed decade, running on fumes and engaging in hedonism out of pure instinct. Cutter, meanwhile, is trauma incarnate. He’s almost never vertical, either drunkenly sprawled into couches and chairs or hunched over his cane, enhancing his conspiratorial, scheming look as he justifies his hatred for Cord. The friends represent the two polarities of response to the decade, one passive, one aggressive, and together they plot a spectrum of hopelessness.
In the middle lies Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), Cutter’s wife. Drained of life by the stress of tending to her husband and his manic rage, Mo sees so few options for escape that she doesn’t even find camaraderie with Bone, whom she fairly views as someone wasting potential of his own volition instead of being trapped. She forms the top point in a triangle between the two men, above both in intellect and self-regard, but forced to rely on both for support. Eichhorn lacks Heard’s volcanic outbursts and Bridges’s deadpan listlessness, but she brings an acidic, icy despair to her line deliveries, which are laser-focused for maximum impact. When Mo tells her husband that she’s like his lost limb, something that his brain only vestigially recognizes, the truth of her statement is so overwhelming that Cutter strikes her out of horrified self-realization more than anger.
In the absence of an overriding, unseen force to commit evil against the characters, the film leaves in plain sight the implication that everyday people are as responsible for the state of things as events beyond their control. The question of Cord’s guilt is ultimately incidental, as the evidence for and against his culpability collapses against Cutter’s single-minded desire for revenge against anyone who made it out of the ’70s in better shape than when they went in. If Cord is evil, and the finale approaches that subject ambiguously, it’s of a type both more outlandish and more quotidian than murder, and the response it provokes is as desperate as it is futile.
Cutter’s Way is a dingy film, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray ably captures its textures of stringy, unwashed hair, slept-in clothing, and sunken faces. Excellent contrast maximizes little details like the roughness of Cutter’s facial hair, or the splotches of purple and pink that line Mo’s exhausted, hollow eyes. The mono audio track is less impressive, with its soft dynamics and minimal complications, though it at least comes free of any noticeable artifacts or inconsistencies.
Aside from some trailers, the only extras are an essay by Twilight Time’s resident historian Julie Kirgo as well as a commentary by Kirgo and fellow historian Nick Redman. Kirgo’s convivial tone and accessible enthusiasm tend to make her an enjoyable listen, and that’s true of this track, which mixes observations on how the acting shapes the narrative with broader comments on historical and industry context. Kirgo’s essay is more general in focus, but also provides interpretations and background information on the film.
One of the final triumphs of the New Hollywood era, Cutter’s Way belongs on the shelf of fans of both Cassavetian hyperreal melodrama and Pakula-esque political thrillers.