Still from 1981's "Cutter's Way."

But unlike those aforementioned, successful French thrillers, with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) coming to mind, Cutter’s Way never quite manages to get us on its side. It certainly develops its characters effectually, and potently delivers the age-old message that, if you have enough money in your bank account and enough influence around the community, you very well can get away with murder.

 

Perhaps Cutter’s Way’s mistake is that it introduces a searing thrilling scenario but hardly seems to be as intrigued by it as we are. It’s one we’ve seen plenty: innocent man witnesses a crime from afar and, as a result, might now be on the hit list of corrupted political giants. Because conspiracy thrillers generally make for gripping subgenre detours, we are, from the get-go, eager for the film to evolve from character study to full-blown man versus government roller coaster a la Blow Out (1981).

 

Yet Cutter’s Way likes to keep things ambiguous and aimless. It’s neo-kitchen-sink, plugging its ears in the face of being told it’s ripe for suspense and pretending that the focused-upon individuals should be our real priority. 

 

Once in a while, we figure the movie is right for being so understated. It hovers around the life of the man who witnessed the crime, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), and his relationships with the crippled, Army vet cum misanthrope Alex Cutter (John Heard), and Cutter’s wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), with whom Bone is having an affair that contains all the joy of one between two depressives in a 1960s European art film.

 

These people are so damaged that they’re temporarily able to trick us into thinking that we are not, in fact, thirsty for what the conspiracy ordeal might hold. They live in a broken down old house in the middle of what we perceive to be a neighborhood that could have been idyllic during the Nuclear Age. 

 

Of these people, Bone is the most stable, a functioning alcoholic and sometimes gigolo who can be the voice of reason when he chooses to be. But he is, nonetheless, tiring of a life so desultory. The Cutters are heartrending figures, too: Mo is defeated and sad, verbally lacerating those closest to her as her armor, and Alex, armless, eyeless, and hopeless, snarls every word, almost obsessed with making those unaccustomed to his acerbity uncomfortable.

 

This is a co-dependent trio, and it is a dysfunctional one — they resent each other almost as much as they love one another. Heard and Eichhorn, startling, give magnificent performances, with Bridges acting as the superglue barely holding this cracking, moldy household together.

 

But for all its masterfully-realized performances and its sharp instances of dialogue (Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s screenplay is note-perfectly sad-funny), we cannot help but wallow in disappointment when the thriller components get their time to shine and underwhelm. So unceremoniously put forth are they that the ambiguous ending, which might have otherwise haunted, feels like a cop-out. How great a film Cutter’s Way could have been had it been as equally evocative a thriller as a character study. 

 

With its performances so excellent, though, Cutter’s Way is deserving of a look, especially in wake of its botched theatrical run. (It was first released in March 1981 to bad reviews and bad box-office, was re-released in the summer to critical reappraisal, only to fade away from much of the cultural memory by the end of the year.) It’s as messy and wandering as protagonists, and that’s plenty damaging. But how often have Heard and Eichhorn had a moment? B-

DIRECTED BY

Ivan Passer

 

STARRING

Jeff Bridges

John Heard

Lisa Eichhorn

Ann Dusenberry

Stephen Elliott

Arthur Rosenberg

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1981

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 45 Mins.

Cutter's Way September 22, 2017        

n the French style, 1981’s Cutter’s Way is a thriller more inclined to get to know the characters driving the action than to actually building up the action. It is essentially a non-thriller. A conspiracy plot is dealt with nonchalance, and much more time’s allotted for late-night conversations and existential crises than invitations for hair-raising. Depending on how much you fancy thrillers with an identity more scattered than Madonna’s, Cutter’s Way might work — undoubtedly are its characterizations cogent, as are its investigative probings.

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