Review: Cutter and Bone

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1981]

In March of this year, a film named Cutter and Bone opened in New York under the aegis of United Artists. Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned it, business was bad, and UA, still bleeding from its Heaven’s Gate wounds, yanked the film after one week. That was just in time to miss a number of weekly magazine reviews hailing it as perhaps the most exciting American film of the year, and glowing with praise for its director, Ivan Passer, and its stars, Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn. At that time UA turned Cutter and Bone over to its difficult-films division, United Artists Classics, where a new ad campaign was devised and a new title imposed. As Cutter’s Way, the film has begun a test market engagement in Seattle. You may or may not get to see it. Here’s a report from someone who did.

***

Richard Bone saw a body being dumped in an alley around midnight. He doesn’t know that yet. Now it’s a couple of hours later and he’s driving home. Not his home, exactly, but where he sleeps. Not quite that, either: where he sleeps until he grows uncomfortable with having been in one place too long—usually around first light; then he gets up and goes down to the marina and finishes sleeping on one of the boats he’s supposed to be hustling to susceptible Santa Barbra wives. But right now he’s driving home, to Alex Cutter’s house, in Alex Cutter’s car, to Alex Cutter’s wife Mo.

From the kitchen come sounds of clunky rummaging in the refrigerator; the light of its bulb is all that shows us Mo, in souvenir Vietnam Oriental jacket, dredging up a fresh bottle. She walks into the living room barefoot and careful, her face set with the concentration needed to keep her head straight on her shoulders. Seeing Bone, she smiles after a fashion. Some of the smile may say Welcome. Some of the smile may say, as she more or less does now, You again! A lot of it is just because that’s what happens to Mo’s face when she’s stoned. You can feel the alcohol and the downers in every delicate, courageous step she takes, sense how the strain of keeping her balance through recent months and years has made her bones frail, understand that the pressure under her skull is like a headachy memory of grace she can’t let go of.

Rich smiles back. She teases him idly about being home early: no lonely lady out there hungering after a slightly over-aged “golden boy”? He is golden in the glow of amber light bulbs and the gas fire he switched on when he came in. It’s sad, excessive tawniness, appropriate to a California prodigy become beach-bum prodigal. Mo’s an expert on cripples—her husband lacks an eye, an arm, and a leg—so she’s on to the fact that Rich’s handsomeness and easy amiability always promise more than he can deliver.

Still, she harbors a dream or two, even if she needles herself for having them: “Any minute now, Prince Charming will ride by on his grand white charger and carry me away.” Holding the bottle, Rich ripostes, “My charger has a bad battery”—his dead Austin Healy sits a few yards away from that undiscovered body—”but will I do?” Mo extends a hand toward him. Cut. Rich, on familiar ground, confidently leans forward. Cut. Mo’s voice could crack ice: “The bottle.”

***

The thing about Cutter and Bone that hits you right away, before you can possibly guess how rich it’s going to be, is what a terrific movie it is. You catch the feeling through the fine hair on your arms. Textures stand up the special way they can when light and surfaces are refracted through a sharp lens and an imaginative eye. Rain begins to bead up on a windshield and the world slides into change: it’s a shot a thousand filmmakers have tried to get, and this film gets it right. The important movie things happen. People look at each other, and their looking takes everything they’re saying and flexes it into sideslips of suggestibility. A woman walks between two men and anything’s possible. Incidents begin to assume the decisiveness of events. and the selectively “off” rhythms of the film’s movement gather themselves toward the shaping and sounding of a missing chord.

On its primary level, the film is a character mystery. Sitting in his stopped car, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) sees somebody, all bulk and dark glasses against backlighted curtains of rain, stash something in a trash barrel. He can’t tell the police more, and fully believes that he knows no more; but the next afternoon he looks at a big man riding by in the Old Spanish Days parade and says, “That’s him!” A minute later, he might have shaken his head free of the notion and dismissed it, if not for his friend Alexander Cutter III (John Heard). Alex fastens on Richard’s shock of recognition—one of those intuitive, spontaneous perceptions that immediately take on the blinding clarity of absolute truth—and begins to weave the available facts about the putative killer and his victim and the murder night into a persuasive tapestry. The suspect, a prominent oil man and local sportsman, is guilty, and they must pull him down.

John Heard and Jeff Bridges in ‘Cutter and Bone’

Alex has a desperate need for J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) to be guilty—which is to say, among other things, that this veteran of Vietnam has a desperate need for something to focus his rampaging energy, his vast smoking rage. It’s a rage against the haves and the wholes, against a society riddled with political and economic injustice, and against the history of his time, which has left him broken martyr to an unsanctified cause. It’s also a rage for order, for a story. That body in the alley—a doped-up high school cheerleader sodomized and viciously cast aside—becomes a hook on which to hang a story: and the image of Cord, once sighted on the horizon, draws Alex relentlessly.

He will not be drawn alone. Cutter needs Bone because Bone is the witness he can threaten Cord with. And he needs Cord because it’s getting harder to provoke his pal. Rich is onto the broken cadences of Alex’s anarchy, can even come in on his patter and trump his punchlines. “Great art deserves a great audience,” Alex rasps at our first sight of him, a brilliant middle-of-the-night bar scene wherein this grinning, patch-eyed specter charms and terrorizes everyone in range, and nearly precipitates a mini-riot. Rich manages to defuse the situation and split with what he came for, Alex’s car keys. “Richard Bone, doing what he does best—walking away!” Cutter hurls after him—that and his cane. The art of Alex Cutter is to allow no one to remain safely “audience,” least of all his best friends.

The other best friend is Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Cutter and Bone, as we shall see presently, is the only proper title for this film, but Mo is a coequal presence in her way. The fiercely self-maintained center of both men’s lunar orbits, she defines the completeness of them all. Her fidelity to her husband rebukes Rich’s opportunism, even though the attraction between them is clearly reciprocal. Oddly, Alex reads the same fidelity as a rebuke to him, and he pushes her at Bone. She understands Alex—her sad delight in his ingenious frenzies is hurtful to see—but she will not, cannot turn a blind eye when she thinks he’s lying to himself as well as to her. Alex proposes to blackmail J.J. Cord and then turn him over to the cops if he admits his guilt by paying up. She believes Alex wants the money (and maybe he does), and tells him straight: “I’m like your leg, Alex—sending messages to your brain and there’s nothing there anymore.” And Alex abandons his amputated limb to pursue the Quest.

Rich goes along, but only pretends to deliver his let’s-make-a-deal letter to Cord’s L.A. offices. He hopes that when nothing happens Alex will lose interest in his latest game. Instead, Alex explodes and lurches off to deliver the letter himself. Bone he sends “home where the heart is,” and that night Rich and Mo finally become lovers. She speaks of her own incompleteness—”Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night I have to go and see if I’m still there”—and Rich insists, again and again, “I’m gonna stay.” But when she falls asleep, he walks. The door closes behind him. Mo’s eyes open, and the hand that has lain extended on the couch—toward Rich, toward the gas fire, toward anything that will warm and fill—curls shut.

The next morning Richard awakes on the boat to the news that Mo is dead. The house is gone, burned to the last stick. He and Alex, returned from L.A., stand side by side at the morgue, in the presence of a cinder in a body bag, each alone with his particular guilt. Alex asks that the bag be unzipped, then looks up at the coroner, smiles, and speaks: an I.D., a whimsical epitaph, a last hello: “Mo.”

***

We can accurately call Cutter and Bone a film of enchantment—few other American movies since Chinatown, that earlier meditation on corruption in Lotusland, have cast and sustained such a spell—but that’s only a partial truth. The supreme triumph of Cutter and Bone is that it’s also a lucid film about the allures and dangers of enchantment at the same time it works its particular magic. Leaving the Hotel El Encanto and beginning his drive toward his rendezvous with destiny, Richard Bone pauses at an intersection where six white horses materialize out of the night, and cross in his headlights. The ongoing festivities of Old Spanish Days provide a rational account for such a storybook apparition, but it’s also a harbinger of other white horses to come: the white charger Mo speaks of in rueful fancy, and the one that bears an unlikely hero toward the monster of his obsession.

Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone is an ambitious book, and it supplies much of the material for what we encounter in the film; but finally Thornburg ties up the story’s many mysteries and opts for a patly political Easy Rider conclusion. As written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and realized by Ivan Passer, the film transcends post-Vietnam politics in pursuit of still bigger fish.

Alex Cutter entered the film making a barbed joke about his unscarred buddy as an Ishmael who carries “Moby Dick,” an exotic social disease: and more than Alex’s poetically apt wounds qualify him to be a contemporary Ahab. Cord is Cutter’s Leviathan; and the way Fiskin and Passer present him, he partakes of something akin to the whiteness of Melville’s Whale: he is a blank on which any idea can be projected.

Jeff Bridges,Lisa Eichhorn, and John Heard

We never get close enough to hear Cord speak until the last scene in the movie. Till then, he’s an icon, a composite of evocative images: a heavy, ramrod-straight figure on horseback; a bullet-headed man behind glasses that seem made of steel; a high-rising corporate tower (which Alex hails with a “Thar she blows!”), and so forth. Even when we and Bone are finally ushered into Cord’s presence, the strategy persists: a turned back, silhouetted against fogged windowlight, he recalls the classic Oval Office portrait of J.F.K.; and when he faces Bone and the camera at last, he stations himself beneath his own imperial portrait (which Fiskin specified should be styled after the classic pose of J.P. Morgan). The film doesn’t cheat: Cord is never less than awesome, as a presence or an Idea. But the movie also dares to satirize our willingness to be awed. We know that the signs of Cord’s proto-fascist villainy verge on triteness, yet there’s something chilling about seeing this abstraction made concrete in the texture of the film.

Fiskin devised one scene with no counterpart in the novel: a visit to a posh French restaurant where Cutter, Bone, and the sister (Ann Dusenberry) of the murdered girl discuss the possibility of Cord’s being guilty. Alex reconstructs the murder, supplying a persuasive hypothesis for an unpremeditated killing, and his demonstration is outspoken enough to set patrons at a nearby table twittering. Suddenly it is disclosed that that particularly upset-looking lady is the wife of J.J. Cord. Even Alex is circumspect enough to beat a hasty retreat at this point, but something lingers on the air after the sequence has ended: a delicious thrill of realizing that, after all, the wealthy and powerful might turn up at your elbow, and you can embarrass the shit out of them in public.

Did J.J. Cord murder Vicki Duran? (For that matter, was Mo’s death his “answer” to the letter Alex delivered, or does she fill the house with gas and destroy the last vestige of her ruined life with Cutter and Bone?) Passer says he personally believes that Cord “probably isn’t guilty,” and that Alex, like a lot of people, has been seduced by the notion of tearing somebody big and successful down. But his film responds to the power of that urge, just as it understands and honors the human need to make sense, any sense, of what may be nothing but random events.

***

In the end, Cutter and Bone play dress-up and go to a party. A borrowed invitation gets them into Cord’s palatial home, where a reception is in progress. Bone tries to cool Cutter down, tries to figure out a way to separate him from his pearl-handled Army .45 and get the both of them out of there. Cutter, as so often, is smiling, and the flamenco guitars that inadvertently score his determined penetration of the great man’s house, while Bone frantically tries to go on looking like a properly behaved guest, bring the film’s peculiar sense of comedy to a manic peak. Unsmiling guards in summer tuxes break up the pair and apprehend Bone, while Cutter pogo-hops his way through the guests on the lawn to a place of concealment. The stables, as it happens.

Bone is alone with Cord in his study. Mere feet separate them. Bone looks embarrassed. Here is the man, and he’s just a man, after all—falsely, preposterously accused, understandably put out at this indiscreet fuss, but willing to be reasonable withal. Just find Alex and get out of the poor guy’s life….

And then Alex rides. Not a white whale but a white horse, charging through tents and tables of hors d’oeuvres, plunging up the terrace, sky high against golden mountains. Nitzsche’s exalted music carries echoes of Cuckoo’s Nest, of R.P. McMurphy and a Chief Bromden stirred to life again. A wide window heaves into view. With a cry of unholy joy, Cutter leaps: Alex through the looking-glass.

The enchantment is shattered. The outsider is inside at last. But with his target staring down at him, he can’t lift his gun. Bone flings himself on his bleeding friend and offers the only satisfaction he can: he’s dying, let him believe: “It was him, Alex! It was him!” Then he sees Cord watching them. “…It was you!” Cord, almost musing, subjunctive mode to the end: “What if it were?” Bone lifts Cutter’s hand with the gun in it, the dead finger still on the trigger. Cord considers, turns, takes the silver shades from the desk, puts them on. One man who used to be two fires a shot. Powder flash. Black screen. Story’s over.

Copyright © 1981 by Richard T. Jameson

Edit note: Now on Blu-ray from Twilight Time

Jeff Bridges in ‘Cutter and Bone’

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