Wednesday, December 14, 2005

CUTTER’S WAY (1981) - Ivan Passer

Back in film school, in one of several generally-pointless screenwriting classes I took, I had an ongoing disagreement with one of the “professors” (read: guy who can no longer get work in the industry and needs to pay the bills) about the nature of character motivation. This “professor” was -- surprise -- a die-hard three-act structuralist who preached the gospel of a main character having a clearly defined goal which he follows to the end -- and this from an ex-hippie who nodded off frequently during class.
I would argue his point, citing movies like Five Easy Pieces and My Own Private Idaho where the characters are more or less wanderers without defined goals. In my mind, Nicholson in FEP has no clearly defined goals other than constantly running away a goal, whether it’s his musical ability, his relationship with Karen Black, his family. Like many people in the real world, he is more propelled by frustration and the world and characters around him. The only decisive actions he makes are usually brief, self-contained “acting-out” moments -- the chicken salad sandwich scene, the fight at the oil well, etc.
Of course, this tenured-nimrod would argue that Nicholson did have a goal. Oddly, he never could come up with what that goal was, probably because it wasn’t so three-act easy to pinpoint as the standard-bearers he preached -- “getting the money,” “winning the race,” or “saving the girl.” You know, the general action-movie bullshit.
Why do I bring all this up? Because Cutter’s Way is another one of those passive-guy movies. In fact, Jeff Bridges as Richard Bone may be the MOST passive character in a movie I’ve ever seen. And this is both the movie’s strength and its weakness.
When we first meet Bone, he’s just had a casual one night stand with someone’s rich wife, (“I’ve had better” they both say), and he leaves the hotel in his broken down car. It dies in a back alley where someone has just so happened to dump the body of a young girl, but the guy gets away before Bone can I.D. him. The next day, Bone’s brought in for questioning as a suspect, tells the cops what he saw (just some guy), and is downgraded to witness status thereafter. The dead girl’s sister is brought in for Bone to talk to but he really doesn’t want to get involved. He’s content to just go back to his sailboat and forget the whole thing.
A guy this passive needs a motor. Enter loose-screw friend Cutter (a fantastic John Heard), a Vietnam vet with a missing arm and leg who’s bloodstream is pure-scotch by the time we meet him. He clings onto the murder with a missionary zeal, especially when Bone sees a local fat-cat named Cord in a parade crowd and says casually: “Hey, that kinda looks like the guy from last night.” Cutter hatches a plot to blackmail Cord in cahoots with the dead girl’s sister so that when Cord pays up, they will not keep the money but take it to the cops as evidence that Cord killed the girl. But was Cord even involved? Or is this just another one of Cutter’s embittered conspiracy theories?
Bone doesn’t really care. As Cutter steps up his blackmail plot, Bone keeps resisting, trying to avoid it, and even once claiming to deliver the blackmail note to the fat-cat’s offices, only to reveal a little later that he never did. He also develops a very half-assed relationship with Cutter’s battered spouse which he kinda flakes out on as well. At this point, you’re thinking…what gives? Blackmail. Adultery. This guy Bone (and this movie) can’t commit to anything!
And that’s kinda the point, even if it makes for some slow going in the middle. This is a guy who lives in the shadow of everything -- his friend Cutter, his own life. He really just doesn’t want to get involved. After Cutter’s wife dies in fire (another accident Bone doesn’t won't to take responsibility for), Cutter steps up his rampage. This is where the movie starts to get good again because it finally puts Bone (and the movie) to the test in a great, if not a little absurd, ending involving a high-class party, a horse, and a gun.
Cutter’s Way would never, ever get made today, and I’m even a little surprised it got made in the ‘80s. It has that negative, ambiguous ‘70s vibe going for it in spades. I don’t know, maybe it was greenlit in the ‘70s then sat on a shelf for a few years. Either way, the characters and acting are entirely real-world believable and to a frustrating fault. Take that, NYU professor. Take that.

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