Cutter's Way ★★★★★

“I watched the war on TV like everybody else. Thought the same damn things. You know what you thought when you saw a picture of a young woman with a baby lying face down in a ditch, two gooks. You had three reactions, Rich, same as everybody else. The first one was real easy: ‘I hate the United States of America’. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch. ‘There is no God’. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? ‘I’m hungry’” Alex Cutter.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are wonderful filmmakers who have respect from all film fans for the numerous great works. However, it is amazing that their work is so often considered to be unique or fresh when almost all of there films are adaptations or influenced by other works. One of the most overlooked of these influences is how much The Big Lebowski takes from 1981’s Cutter’s Way. The Coens when promoting The Big Lebowski were very vocal in explaining how the film was influenced by Raymond Chandler, the great Hardboiled novelist, however the did not mention Cutter’s Way which undoubtedly would have had to have had a influence on Lebowski, it plays like a deadly serious prequel.

The Big Lebowski labryrinth plot can be summed up to a situation where Jeff Bridges plays a man who life is going nowhere, which he does not mind. His best friend is living in the past with Vietnam complex and he has a burgeoning relationship with a woman where he is little more than a paid gigolo. The film has many other plot points including his rug, bowling, private detectives and porn parties all filtered through a hallucination of Coen magic and Chandler style wit.

Let’s look at the basic out for the plot of Cutter’s Way. Jeff Bridges plays a beach bum, who is a fading giglo, he sleeps with older women for money. His friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a Vietnam veteran who brought significant mental and physical wounds from the war, he has one eye, one arm and one leg missing. A crime is committed and Bone thinks that he may of seen the criminal, he thinks he may be a rich man from the town. An investigation begins.

It is obvious from this cursory description that the plots have a surface similarity. Jeff Bridges character’s Bone and The Dude are similar, they are aimless and faded. The Coen brothers play this for laughs, Ivan Passer highlights the melancholy in a wasted life. Perhaps The Dude can be seen as Bone 20 years older and come to terms with his failed life, or rather than come to terms with it but numbed his pain with drink, drugs and bowling. The greatest similarity between the pieces is the Vietnam afflicted best friend, once again The Big Lebowski plays this for laughs rather than Cutter’s Way serious examination of surviving a war. The plots have similar storylines in that they both involve an investigation into a crime, with a Raymond Chandler-esque mood evoked. Both films are set in LA, they are both modern Noirs shot in the LA sunshine.

However, the major difference between the two movies is the difference in tone. Cutter’s Way is played deadly serious, it is melancholic in the extreme whereas, of course, The Big Lebowski is played for laughs.

Cutter’s Way was directed by Ivan Passer. Ivan Passer was a key figure within the Czech New Wave, he worked closely with the major figure within the movement Milos Forman on many films. Passer has made number of films, none of which has ever reached the heights before or since of Cutter’s Way. He infuses the film with a number of melancholic and dense themes, Jeff Bridges is a character who cannot make a decision nor stand up for anything. He is challenged to change his way of thinking by the crime he has witnessed. John Heard plays a character emotionally and physically debilitated by Vietnam he is searching redemption in life, a way out of his alcoholic haze. The murder mystery offers him a shot at this redemption in the form of a crusade that he gladly takes up. Lisa Eichorn plays the woman caught between these two men, once in love with the physically crippled Cutter and falling in love with the emotionally crippled Bone. Cutter’s Way is a character drama, it is what the films of 1970s came to be in America. Though it was released in 1981 it is by all artistic definitions a film of the 1970s, perhaps the last great American character film of that period. It was made on the cusp of the studio heads wrestling the control of the asylum back from the inmates after the failures of films as diverse as 1941 and Heaven’s Gate. Fortunately this under appreciated classic slipped through the system before the move towards the high concept 1980s.

This film is dependent on the performances of three leads to allow it to work, they do not disappoint at all. Jeff Bridges has never been better than the indecisive loser he plays here, he subverts his Hollywood looks creating a down-trodden character who is easy to pity and route for. Lisa Eichorn plays a tragic character with wonderful strength, she is a faded beauty who is slowly dying caught between two characters who are not good for her. However, it is John Heard who sets this film alight, he chews on the dialogue and spits out with a rasp. It is one of the most magnetic, cynical and desperate performances ever seen in a film.

Cutter’s Way is truly a forgotten masterpiece of cinema. If you like The Big Lebowski, see a film that must have influenced it, see a film that is melancholic and downbeat; see a film with a muted visual style and magnetic performances; see a film which has a labyrinth plot and a shocking ending. But most of all see this film.

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