By Russel D McLean
Its been a while since I’ve talked movies, or at least movies that are new to me. And certainly, CUTTER’S WAY qualifies in that department. Despite being filmed in 1981, its one of those movies that appears to have gained cult status while utterly passing me by. And it’s only because the Dundee Contemporary Arts Cinema decided to show an old print that I ever even knew of its existence.
Which is a shame because CUTTER’S WAY – based on the novel CUTTER AND BONE by Newton Thornburg – is one of those movies I think should be rightly considered a classic of noir cinema rather than the cult curiosity it seems to have become.
It’s the story of two men – one a man drifting through life with no real plan or ambition, and the other an embittered, crippled veteran looking desperately for one last chance to play the hero – who become obsessed with finding a murderer after one of them is called as a potential witness even though he see nothing of importance to the police investigation.
The film itself unravels slowly, almost languorously, with long, slow shots and an air of understated realism that feels unusual in a film of its period. After all, the eighties were the beginnings of the big Blockbusters and the slam-bang summer movies, but CUTTER’S WAY is determined to take its sweet time in telling its story. Even the murder that kickstarts the plot seems relegated to the background of a shot; a barely in focus foot sticking from a rubbish bin that the audience barely notices, and that Jeff Bridges manages to ignore completely until the police come knocking on his door to pull him in as a potential witness.
That idea of the not-seen and the unnoticed plays throughout the film as our perceptions are constantly thwarted and played with. As Cutter and Bone begin to realise that they might have an idea who the murderer is, we begin to question their certainty, to ask ourself whether what we’re seeing is really what we’re seeing. Are we watching two men unravel a mystery? Or are we watching them play more and more into their own paranoid delusions, desperate for some excitement, some vindication to their lives? The idea of unreality, of delusion, is pressed even more into the mind by the strange, haunting musical riffs that play softly through the film, creating an otherworldly feel in a film that looks otherwise almost like a documentary.
By the end of the movie – with its brilliant final frame – you’ll be questioning what you saw, what was really happening during the movie. A lesser film would let us believe the narrative of Cutter himself; the crazy, conspiracy-fuelled narrative that leads to some very dark places. But this is no ordinary film, and CUTTER’S WAY constantly underscores what we might expect to happen. While it is clear from both John Heard and Jeff Bridges’ astounding performances that they believe what is happening, that they think they know the truth, we are forced to question their reliability until ultimately nothing is clear.
With Heard’s incredible performance at its centre, and Bridges providing a more than solid foil, CUTTER’S WAY is really a two man show; a noir version of the classic double act. Their relationship forms the world around them, and it is a strangely seductive world in its way.
If you haven’t seen CUTTER’S WAY, and if you want a movie that’s going to stay with you long after the credits have finished, leaving you with questions you’re not sure you want answers to, and memories of characters who will linger in your mind, then seek out CUTTER’S WAY. Trust me, you’re not going to be disappointed.