The opening of Cutter’s Way (1981) captures the simple beauty of movement, a dancer in a white dress suggesting a joyous moment of celebration. Shot in slow motion black-and-white accompanied by the languid, melancholy sounds of zither and glass harmonica, the scene resembles the haziness of a tattered postcard come to life. A closer look reveals more recognizable images in the form of a parade, banners, other dancers, American flags. We now feel slightly more comfortable as the images approach modernity with people dancing on a paved street in the middle of a turn lane. A man wearing black hastily passes across the screen, wishing to make his interruption as brief as possible. Soon others cross the path of the dancers as they advance, heedless of their beauty, and we realize the scene has changed from black-and-white to color. Yet the camera focuses on the woman in white, as if the purity of this character is not only important, but crucial, because soon she will be gone.
This combination of familiar and ambiguous images, as well as the Jack Nitszche score, haunt us, implying that something is about to be taken away, both from the foundations of the Santa Barbara community represented by this historic parade, and the film’s characters. If we think of hauntings as representations of elements, memories, or people who have been removed before the end of their vitality and usefulness, then Cutter’s Way is a film devastatingly haunted, particularly in its characters, all of whom are experiencing loss in different ways.
We find the first of these characters, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) in an extreme close-up, reflected in the bathroom mirror of a hotel room. Even from this introduction, we notice that Bone is focused entirely on himself and not the woman (Nina van Pallandt) he just bedded in the next room. His stance and self-reflection convey his vanity, and his use of the woman’s electric shaver tells the audience that he’s willing to take from others without giving very much in return. (As she pays him, the woman even suggests that Bone should invest in some vitamin E.) Bone works as a yacht salesman for his friend George (Arthur Rosenberg) and as a gigolo, but his laid-back detachment from responsibility prevents him from being good at either endeavor. Bone obviously has the looks and charm to succeed in the showroom or the bedroom, but a handsome face and a superficial charisma can only disguise discontent for so long. Beneath that superficiality lies an ambivalence that prevents him from expressing any real emotion or commitment, a perfect combination for the lifestyle he’s chosen.
It’s no surprise that Bone relies heavily on the help of others and that help comes primarily from his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) and Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who graciously allow Bone to stay with them in their Santa Barbara home. Yet living there comes with a price. Cutter, the smartest, most articulate character in the film, is also the most broken. A Vietnam veteran who emerged from the war missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, Cutter is filled with anger and rage, not so much due to what he’s lost physically, but from the betrayal and indifference he suffers from those who sent him to war, the same people who now wish he’d simply go away and leave them alone.
Despite their differences, Cutter and Bone (the film’s original title and the title of the source novel by Newton Thornburg) understand each other. We immediately think we know these characters because we’ve seen their stereotypes so often: the handsome, yet shallow jock whose experiences of hurt come only from sexual rejection (which has probably been infrequent) and the raging, tortured veteran who faces nothing but rejection to the point of becoming invisible. For Cutter, who can no longer function in society, the only way to rise above invisibility is to make himself loud and offensive, neither of which pose a problem for him. In his very first scene, Cutter boldly insults a group of African-American men in a bar without a shred of fear or remorse.
Cutter’s postwar world is filled with anger and biting sarcasm, combined with intelligence and a first-class wit. He can think circles around everyone he encounters, but he’s also just as easily capable of alienating them. Yet Cutter is also capable of charm, albeit a different variety from that practiced by Bone. When he demolishes his neighbor’s car in an attempt to access his own driveway, Cutter drunkenly laughs at his livid neighbor, claiming “It was an honest mistake, and besides, it was in my driveway,” and even insults the man’s wife. Moments later, he plays it meek and humble for the police, smoothing things over long enough for the officer to dismiss the neighbor’s claims. As the police leave, the enraged neighbor is tempted to retaliate physically against Cutter, who raises his walking cane, warning him, “Ahhh… I’m a cripple.”
Early in the movie, Bone’s car breaks down on a lonely LA street after his nighttime assignation with the woman in the hotel. In a scene that brings to mind the haziness of the film’s opening, Bone witnesses a man amongst the shadows dumping a large bundle into a garbage can. The man vanishes and Bone tentatively approaches the trash can to discover the dead body of a woman. He shares this information with his Cutter, who is somewhat intrigued, but that’s about it.
Later in the week, however, Cutter and Bone stand on a street corner watching the Old Spanish Days parade (referenced in the film’s opening scene). As the parade passes by, Bone notices a man wearing mirrored sunglasses, riding atop a white stallion. Bone points at the man and proclaims, “That’s him,” referring to the person he believes dumped the woman’s body, the rich and powerful oil magnate J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Despite Bone’s later statement that maybe this wasn’t the man he saw that night, Cutter - practically a literal Captain Ahab - makes Cord his own personal white whale.
Cord represents to Cutter everything that’s wrong with America as well as the reason Cutter himself is broken. “He’s responsible - for everything,” Cutter proclaims. “Him and every other motherfucker like him. It’s never their ass on the line; it’s always someone else’s - yours, mine, ours.” The rich have their own set of rules and the Cutters and Bones of this world are forced to play by them and often suffer the consequences, whether they follow those rules or not. Acquiescence doesn’t necessarily imply safety. Just ask Cutter.
Bone’s friendship with Cutter is tested when the veteran devises a blackmail scheme to trap Cord. The plan is so poorly and hastily constructed it can only backfire, yet Cutter has contacted the dead girl’s sister Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), who is more than willing to sign up in support of the project. Although this idea perhaps gives Cutter an outlet for his raging anger and energy, Bone rejects it, confessing to Cutter that now he’s not really sure the man he saw that night was Cord. As Cutter insists on pursuing the blackmail angle, Bone reminds Cutter that his entire strategy is based on a vague sighting on a dark street. Cutter, Bone says, is fantasizing that Cord is guilty.
“You’ve got a big problem,” Bone informs Cutter, “imagination.”
“It’s facts,” Cutter replies. “I haven’t even begun to let my imagination loose on this one.”
These two characters are caught in the same dilemma: facing reality and acknowledging their place in it. Both Cutter and Bone have rejected conventional American society: Cutter, in giving up on a country that doesn’t know what to do with such broken people, and Bone, a drifter with no emotional attachment or accountability to anyone including himself. Although they arrive at this point in the film via different paths, neither has found a working alternative to the lives they are leading. As harebrained as it may be, Cutter’s plan at least gives him a sense of purpose, more hope and direction than anything else he’s done since the end of the war. The plan allows him to temporarily escape the nightmares of Vietnam and attempt to quiet the ghosts he carries with him. Valerie is too young, naive, and trusting to see the weaknesses in Cutter’s proposal, so she sides with him, prepared to do anything that might bring justice to her sister. Her acceptance adds great support to Cutter, but carries little weight with Bone, whose desires are more “of the moment” and less contemplative.
In one of the film’s running themes, Cutter often accuses Bone of “walking away” when any kind of commitment or accountability is involved. While Cutter has literally given of himself during the war, Bone is reluctant to do anything when confronted with resistance. Throughout his life, he’s given nothing (other than his libido), never fought for anything or made a sacrifice. Bone could identify the killer, but that would require (ironically) backbone and firm determination, qualities Cutter has in abundance. Perhaps Bone fears that any steps toward action might force him to lose some part of himself as Cutter has, so he does nothing, except walk away.
After the failure of the blackmail scheme, Cutter is determined to get to Cord in a different, more confrontational manner. While watching their friend George play in a polo match, Cutter explodes during an argument with Bone, who wants nothing to do with Cutter’s new plan. Cutter taunts him to “walk, walk, walk, walk!” but Bone refuses. Exasperated, Cutter decides to walk himself, an action he can barely accomplish, made even more dangerous as he hobbles unassisted across the polo field with the match in progress, proving that he is still willing to take chances both dangerous and foolhardy.
Earlier, while Cutter and Bone wage war against each other over the blackmail project, Mo stands in the middle, or more accurately, on the sidelines. In these early scenes with Mo, we might be tempted to turn her into a symbol for all women attempting to deal with their returning veteran husbands and loved ones, but her character contains far more depth and shadings than those required of a stereotype. Her marriage to Cutter has drained her almost to the point of becoming numb, frequently self-medicating with a drink in hand, which is how we first meet her. Mo is haunted, not only by her incomplete (and not just physically) husband, but by a void. One possible cure for this void is living right under her roof. She knows Bone is attracted to her, and she to him, but they each play games to keep the other at bay.
In their first scene together, Bone says to Mo (wearing pajamas and carrying a bottle), “You’re beautiful.” Mo nods to the bottle, dismissing his compliment: “Considering.” Bone jabs back: “I don’t like you when you’re stoned.” Mo’s ready response: “Hey, Rich, I don’t like you when I’m straight.” Bone silences her with “How would you know?”
Yet Mo’s presence on the sidelines allows her to observe and understand both Cutter and Bone in ways they cannot. If Cutter is haunted by the war and Bone by an inability to care about anything, Mo’s ghosts come from a life that can’t be fulfilled by either man. The implication, evidenced by the looks exchanged between them throughout the film, is that if Bone had stuck around and been a more stable presence, she might have ended up with him instead of Cutter.
When she can no longer stomach Cutter’s ridiculous blackmail scheme, Mo tells Valerie that all three of them are “dumb bastards planning a dumb crime.” Finally railing against her husband, Mo declares, “I’m your (missing) leg, sending messages to your brain, and there’s nothing there anymore.” We don’t know if Mo has always been this honest and angry with Cutter or if this is the first time, but she’s rewarded with a punch in the face. Despite this treatment, we’re not convinced Mo is habitually battered, at least not physically. She clearly loves Cutter (Why else would she stick around?), but the vulnerability in their relationship has clearly made her sensitive to Bone’s occasional flirting.
In perhaps the film’s most pivotal scene, Mo finally concedes to Bone’s advances, crying during their lovemaking, yet begging Bone to stay afterward. Of course, Bone leaves while Mo is sleeping; walking away is what he does best. Many viewers have speculated as to whether Mo, after sleeping with Bone, took her own life. Did Mo allow the house to burn down through negligence? Had she simply given up? Perhaps Mo recognizes that this moment with Bone is one she can’t cling to, a moment that will be taken away regardless of whether Cutter finds out. It is conceivable to imagine that rather than face the consequences of the act or even the pleasure she derived from it, Mo chooses to remove herself. Rather than risking what just happened as a moment that could be stolen or tarnished, Mo makes it her final moment.
Not only do Cutter and Bone not understand each other, neither man understands the world of J.J. Cord, a man who seems haunted by nothing. Although Bone works occasionally for George, who works for Cord, he is literally far removed from the man, brought out by the fact that when he announces to Cutter “That’s him,” during the parade, Cutter has to tell Bone who “him” is. Cutter thinks he knows how Cord will react to their blackmail letter, by paying up to cover his reputation and standing in the community, but even Bone recognizes the idiocy of this strategy. The two men are playing a guessing game, with Cutter practically making up his master plan to trap Cord as he goes along, and Bone trying to weasel his way out of it. Yet while these guys are spinning in futility, Cord has absolutely no need to try to understand them; he’s in complete control.
Did Cord cause the situation that leaves these characters in such a sorry state? Are the tragic outcomes simply the result of coincidence? Are Cutter, Bone, and Mo (as well as Valerie’s sister) nothing more than collateral damage in the wake of Cord’s privileged procession through life in Santa Barbara?
Throughout the film, Cutter and Bone are each portrayed as both haunted and incomplete, as if they could be two sides of the same coin. The film seems to imply that if they could be merged together, they might be effective. This is exactly what happens in the film’s ending as Cutter, riding Cord’s white stallion, crashes through the window of Cord’s study, determined to assassinate him, and dies with his hand on the gun. Bone, grabbing the gun and Cutter’s trigger finger with it, becomes one with his friend and fires the film’s literal final shot. Cutter’s ghosts are now silenced and Mo’s were put to rest earlier, but what of Bone? Of all three main characters, only Bone has taken a decisive step to silence his own hauntings with the chance (albeit a slim one) to live long enough to enjoy such deliverance. It is up to the audience to speculate what the future (if any) holds for Bone, but at least he has resisted the urge to walk away. Instead, he has fought against the hauntings that have, up to this point, defined him.
After the final black screen, the audience is left to contemplate whether or not these three characters are broken souls, losers, misfits, or all three. We can’t deny that they are at the very least shattered, haunted with unfulfilled hopes that they probably recognized long ago would never find a satisfactory conclusion. Yet they kept plugging away at life. Unlike the dancers in the film’s opening, we never see the full beauty of their lives, only hints of untainted remembrances from their pasts. Their struggles come not from trying to compete with the J.J. Cords of this world, but simply from attempting to coexist in a land that he and those like him control. Cutter could make a case that Cord and his ilk are responsible for his physical loss and suffering, thus creating Cutter’s ghosts. In doing so, Cutter has made Cord a representative of a much larger body of people and ideologies he could never successfully combat. Although Bone and Mo have, in a sense, chosen their own private hells, those places of torment find their origin at least partially in the brokenness of Cutter. In trying to create a normal life with Cutter, Mo has given so much of herself for so long that nothing is left. Bone struggles to come to grips with the fact that even though Cutter came back from the war an incomplete person, at least he did something.
Cutter’s Way reminds us that we are all broken, incomplete, and just possibly haunted. As the film’s opening reminds us via the historical aspects of the parade, our pasts keep telling us that something good, precious, and undefiled has been taken away, and even if we could get it back, we might not be the better for it. Perhaps both Cutter and Mo have chosen to take themselves out of this world: Cutter, by taking his last shot at the symbol of the type of men who ruined his life, and Mo, by deciding to enjoy a long-overdue feeling that someone loves her (even superficially). Cutter and Mo have escaped the toxicity of their lives, finding release from their hauntings. Only at the very end does Bone make his own decision to no longer walk away, but to actually commit to an action. The outcome is left for us to imagine as the screen turns black. Cutter’s Way makes us ask ourselves what we would do to fix our own brokenness and silence our ghosts. But we also must ask, is the price worth it?
Photos: IMDb, Roger Ebert, Listal, So Few Critics, So Many Poets, Wolfman’s Cult Film, The Playlist, This Distracted Globe