Thursday, March 12, 2009

Film Review: CUTTER'S WAY (1981, Ivan Passer)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: John Heard, Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn, Nina van Pallandt, Stephen Elliott, Patricia Donahue, co-producer Larry J. Franco (Kurt Russell's brother-in-law and John Carpenter's co-producer through the 1980's), cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (BLADE RUNNER, ROLLING THUNDER).
Tag-lines: "Cutter does everything his way. Fighting. Loving. Working. Tracking down a killer. " Now there's a studio-imposed tag-line if there ever was one.
Best one-liner(s): "I don't drink. You know, the routine grind drives me to drink. Tragedy, I take straight."

Absolutely brilliant film from Czech expatriate and Milos Forman-collaborator Ivan Passer. At once a powerfully understated neo-noir, a nuanced character study, and a sharply unforgiving look at post-Vietnam America, CUTTER'S WAY is one of those masterpieces that has been swept under the collective cultural rug for whatever reason. You may rest assured, however, that the Coen Brothers have watched this movie many a time: the influence of its labyrinthine, noirish plot structure; its dark streak of humor; and its colorful, unpredictable characters can clearly be seen in everything they've done from BLOOD SIMPLE to BURN AFTER READING.

The acting is superb: in a role that Richard Dreyfuss campaigned for, John Heard is nearly unrecognizable as the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes violence-prone, and sometimes sweet Alex Cutter. Heard transcends his 'character-y' props and trappings (physical disability, gravely voice, eyepatch, and cane) to deliver a completely believable, three-dimensional performance, which is a true feat and a treat to watch.

As Richard Bone, Jeff Bridges balances Cutter's mania without sacrificing character flavor, remarkably similar to how his 'Dude' stabilizes the unhinged madness of John Goodman's 'Walter Sobchak' in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Rounding out the cast is the nearly unknown Lisa Eichhorn as Cutter's long-suffering wife, Stephen Elliott as the possible Bogeyman or perhaps just upstanding citizen, and the always underrated Billy Drago in a bit part as a garbageman. Using his deft direction, lots of natural lighting, and the instincts he honed as a Czech New Wave filmmaker and screenwriter, Passer makes CUTTER'S WAY a subtle, latter-day Noir masterpiece. Five stars.

(And as a side note, the similarities with LEBOWSKI are insane: a gun-toting, unreasonable, ridiculous war vet friend convinces slacker Jeff Bridges character to engage in a blackmail plot involving a possibly nefarious, rich, respected public figure (among other noirish subplots) upon Bridges' character's unwitting, tangential involvement in a young woman's peril- umm, maybe the Coens should give a little credit where it's due, instead of saying THE BIG LEBOWSKI draws the bulk of it's inspiration from THE BIG SLEEP. And I'll tell you why they haven't: because it sounds a lot better to say you're drawing upon generic, classic, respected archetypes than drawing entirely upon a little-known, underappreciated 1981 film. It's like when a student filmmaker tries to replicate some of the editing in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM but insists their inspiration is BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN. All of this being said, however, my only problem with the Coens here is failure to cite sources; THE BIG LEBOWSKI is one of the best films of the 90's, just as CUTTER'S WAY is one of the best of the 80's.)

-Sean Gill

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