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Ivan Passer’s ‘Cutter’s Way’ Was Released in 1981 but Might As Well Have Come Out Today

The late Czech director’s cult classic starred Jeff Bridges and captured a moment in America when people lost faith in institutions and the American Dream  

United Artists/Ringer illustration

It’s an old joke that the films competing for high honors during awards season don’t offer much escapism. In 2008, a year when dark dramas No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood went head to head in the Best Picture category, Oscars host Jon Stewart mused, “Does this town need a hug?

This year, the offerings aren’t quite so bleak, but something is in the air. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out makes a Thanksgiving feast out of Trump-era intrafamily squabbling, while Bong Joon-ho’s transnational phenomenon Parasite turns class conflict into an unpredictable thriller—The People Under the Upstairs/Downstairs. While these films made contemporary concerns into entertainment palatable enough to become mainstream hits, the typically frothy awards shows have become grimmer spectacles.

The recent Golden Globes ceremony had a host making po-faced anti-humor out of real scandals in a tone that was more confrontational than teasing, and winners advocated for a half-dozen equally urgent causes in their speeches—save one, Russell Crowe, who sent a written statement about the apocalyptic fires in his home of Australia.

The anxiety in the room found its truest expression in the stage fright of Joaquin Phoenix, an introverted grouch under the best of circumstances, whose acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Drama suggested that all the good intent behind the political speeches that evening was insufficient. “It’s really nice that so many people have sent their well wishes to Australia but we have to do more than that. … It’s great to vote, but sometimes we have to take that responsibility on ourselves and make changes and sacrifices in our own lives.” In other words, somebody should do something about all the problems—a sentiment at the heart of 2018’s big environmental anxiety movie, First Reformed, in which Reverend Ernst Toller’s much-memed plea that “somebody has to do something” worked as a straightforward assessment of the realities inside and outside the film, as well as a directionless yearning for action that can be transmuted into something explosive.

A movie that builds contemporary calamities into the interior life of an enduring character—Paul Schrader’s “man in a room” archetype, inhabited by Ethan Hawke as Toller—First Reformed is a rare creature, one whose antecedents are in European arthouse cinema and the work of Schrader’s contemporaries in the “New Hollywood.” One such contemporary was Ivan Passer, who died on Thursday, January 9, and his work is worth revisiting. His 1981 drama Cutter’s Way, based on the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, is another film about inaction and its bedfellow, frustration. In the movie, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a wayward lothario who sees a man stuffing a woman’s body into a dumpster one night in Santa Barbara. He suggests to his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) that the culprit might be local industrialist J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cutter, who lost an eye, an arm, and a leg in Vietnam, drinks constantly and delights in tormenting Bone with his provocations. With Cord as his new target, he latches onto the mystery and drags Bone into a dangerous obsession.

Passer had fled Czechoslovakia with his frequent collaborator Miloš Forman in 1969. Forman’s career, which began with Czech New Wave features like Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, cowritten with Passer, soared to great heights when he earned two Academy Awards for Best Director with 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1984’s Amadeus—the first an acknowledged peak of the New Hollywood, the second emblematic of “quality” mainstream cinema in a decade of sequels and slasher films.

Passer spoke frankly about the challenges of making Firemen’s Ball, a classic farce featuring nonprofessional actors bumbling their way through a banquet in which all the auction prizes are eventually pilfered, under the strictures of the Soviet regime. “[Forman and I] took a piece of paper and we wrote down several points like ‘it should be a comedy,’ because the Communist Party and the censorship were more tolerant with comedies,” Passer told Film Comment in 2016. “‘It should be shot outside of the studio, in the streets,’ because they would not look over our shoulder that much.”

The films Passer directed in America, among them Born to Win and Silver Bears, never achieved the popularity or acclaim of Forman’s, though Cutter’s Way fits right alongside the downbeat American dramas of the post-Watergate era. As in The Parallax View, a woman’s death is the catalyst for an investigation into the machinations of the powerful and the powerlessness of ordinary Americans; like Night Moves, the solution to the mystery offers no comfort or revelation to the detective, whose reward is isolation. Like many thrillers of the era, Cutter’s Way could be called a neo-noir, an update of the 1940s crime picture strewn with the aftereffects of wartime—poverty, grift, paranoia.

Hollywood’s film noir inspired the work of Passer’s cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who would make film history a year later with his work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, forever codifying an expressionistically lit noir style into the burgeoning cyberpunk aesthetic. For Cutter’s Way, Cronenweth de-emphasized blues in favor of a muted, earthy scheme that Passer acknowledged as an homage to black-and-white cinematography—a noir in color, but barely. The opening credits play over slowed-down footage of a parade that shifts from black and white to color, accompanied by Jack Nitzsche’s eerie zither score, as if the film itself is being dredged Out of the Past.

The movie’s poster declares “Alex Cutter had a fantasy … one his friends could not escape,” and Heard’s Cutter has a mythic stature, the half-blind oracle who sees the truth, the price of his revelations being his company. Passer said he discovered Heard at a performance of Othello where he’d been sent to meet Richard Dreyfuss; instead Heard’s Cassio captured his attention. Heard brought his New York swagger and actual experience with alcoholism to bear on Cutter, and his freakouts have the feeling of an acting exercise that the other characters are merely witness to, torn about whether to interrupt. In one passage, Cutter smuggles Bone and Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), the victim’s sister, into a club where Cord’s wife sits across the garden, and retells his theory of the murder well within earshot.

The discomfort of Bone and Valerie at the intentional faux pas blends with the anxiety of watching an actor push right up to the edge of “over the top.” The uncertainty of how to deal with a friend in crisis—to keep distance, respect their privacy, or to intervene with the sense that you know what’s best for them—becomes a micro version of the film’s larger questions: What is to be done about Cutter, and what is to be done about the forces driving Cutter mad?

Neither question has an easy answer, because it’s not clear that any one thing is wrong with Cutter. Like Ernst Toller’s personal/spiritual crisis in First Reformed, his specific grievance about his suffering in Vietnam has turned into a careening rage in need of a target. “He’s responsible,” Cutter hisses at Bone, “him and all the motherfuckers in the world just like him, they’re all the same...Because it’s never their ass that’s on the line. It’s always somebody else’s. Always yours, mine, ours.” Cord didn’t send Cutter to the front lines, but he’s guilty enough. Readings of the film, such as Dave Kehr’s for the Chicago Reader, saw the film as a “post-Watergate urge for full disclosure and moral rearmament,” misreading Passer’s broader moralist perspective.

The film frames its gloomy view of the country at the end of the ’70s not only through Cutter’s misfortune in Vietnam, but also the passive sex that keeps Bone at a distance from the people in his life. Passer viewed the deluge of the Vietnam War from afar, and his diagnosis is a widespread cultural malaise, with none of the sympathy engendered by sad-sack sleuths like Gene Hackman’s in Night Moves. This free-flowing contempt, held equally for the malfeasance of a ruling class embodied by Cord and the rootless philandering of Bone and the hippie generation, gives Cutter’s Way its acrid grandeur.

Other reference points are more literary than contemporary: Cutter’s first lines of dialogue reference Moby-Dick, explicitly drawing a parallel between the veteran’s suicidal quest for meaning and the one-legged Captain Ahab. And as he would in the Arthurian parable The Fisher King, Bridges cuts the figure of a wayward knight: Lancelot, the beautiful warrior who is Arthur’s truest companion until his affair with Guinevere brings about their ruin. Among Bone’s many weaknesses is his fondness for Cutter’s wife, Maureen (Lisa Eichhorn), who treats their affair with a resignation that matches Bone’s own listlessness. For most of the film, Cutter makes light of their arrangement, at least until he can use Bone’s guilt to pull him into a desperate confrontation with Cord. There, a breathless finale casts Cutter as a different chivalrous figure: Don Quixote, tilting at his windmills, in a completion of the mock-Arthurian character possessed of a mad, tragic dignity.

It would be tempting, in 2020, to revisit Cutter’s Way and see it as a movie about lower classes rising up against depraved blue bloods. There’s a falseness now to the surge in rich villains in movies and TV, the idea that a gilded industry wants to assure audiences money isn’t everything. Yet the image of Cutter and Bone as errant knights resonates precisely because the script suggests that they are themselves the black sheep of a quasi-noble class. Bone sleeps with a married woman for cash and plays tennis with wealthy chum George (Arthur Rosenberg), who urges him to go full time at his marina business. Cutter prods Bone about his “Ivy League” pedigree and failed potential, while the photo of a hale and smiling Cutter on a boat with George suggests happier times before the war. The implication that these men’s mutual tragedy is their loss of social standing colors in both Bone’s apathy and Cutter’s vendetta against Cord, who represents not only injustice but the fraying of a shared noblesse oblige.

That sense of an inherited duty to the less fortunate, which Phoenix suggested in his roundabout Globes speech, often only extends so far. What resonates about Cutter’s Way in an era of Epstein jokes and encroaching, apocalyptic dread is its articulation of trading comfortable inertia for a disquieting step into the unknown. Bridges’s lazy, anhedonic Bone (a precursor of sorts to the Dude, another coastal layabout roused to action) ambles through the mystery with the unease of a playboy who may finally have to pledge his loyalty and “dance with the one who brung him.” “The world lacks heroes, Rich,” Cutter sneers, and in the final moments, in a sudden decision that would be unfair to reveal—though fans of Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye might approve—Bone gives himself over to Cutter’s quest. Up until that point, all his actions have been motivated by wanting to keep his friend from going too far; now he leaps from the same precipice. While the two companions are in that last shot bound together by the same Cord, the ending’s chilling cut to black is the opposite of the reassuring hug moviegoers might have wanted at the end of the ’70s, plunging them back into the world outside the film with no sense of the story’s fallout. The legacy of Cutter’s Way is wrapped up in that terror of uncertainty, which Passer suggests is why so few people like Bone take action against injustice, and why things never seem to change.

Brendan Boyle works in film exhibition in Chicago, Illinois.

An earlier version of this piece featured a headline that misstated the title of Passer’s 1981 film.