- Travis Woods
Nothing Really Counts, Does It?: Cutter's Way (1981)
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
Broken cutters, broken saws Broken buckles, broken laws Broken bodies, broken bones Broken voices on broken phones Take a deep breath
Feel like you're chokin' Everything is broken.
--Bob Dylan, “Everything is Broken”
“I longed to chase villains, right wrongs, and restore the peace. Upon surviving into manhood, I discovered the black and comedic irony that is every gumshoe’s existential plight, the secret that dime novels and black-and-white movies always elide: each clue our intrepid detective deciphers, each mystery he unravels, each crime he solves, makes the world an unhappier place.”
--Laird Barron, Blood Standard
A broken and bloodied teenage girl’s body, bent into a spine-snapped parabola of abuse, is found wedged within an alleyway trash can, high-heeled feet sticking out just above her head and past the top of the crusted can’s battered rim. Her trachea crushed, her skull fractured, her seventeen years ended. Her body catches misty waves of vomit that spume in the thick and humid morning air from the horrified waste collector who’s found her, revolting rivulets of bile that mix with the degrading congelation of horrors that already slick her corpse, the blood and the semen and fetid rainwater and scum, a crude Rorschach of hate-lust and disregard for her youth, for her dreams, for everything she was. Everything she could have been.
And you’d think the identity of who killed her would be this film’s mystery. But it isn’t.
Because it doesn’t really matter.
A bronzed and lean-muscled man’s body stands before a mirror in a ritzy beachside Santa Barbara hotel the night before, swathed in golden hues and moving with the lazy grace of the impossibly beautiful. Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) hovers in numbed self-regard, a fitting introduction to the Ivy League burnout-turned-Santa Barbara yacht tramp, who strolls through his days as an increasingly half-assed gigolo.
It’s a life purposefully bereft of substance, as something has broken deep within Bone — his body may be perfect, but there’s a spiritual cancer eating him from the inside out, having fractured his soul long ago and left him crippled within — driving him to avoid meaningful emotion at all costs, as if feeling anything of consequence is too painful for his collapsed conscience to bear. It’s not something he takes the time to explain to his disappointed trick, who suggests he uses the few dollars she passes him to “buy some vitamin E.”
“Yeah,” he winces, “it’s been better for me, too.”
Later, Bone steers his puke-green ’66 Austin Healey, its body pockmarked with a topography of casual disregard, to a stuttering, asthmatic breakdown in a rain-swept alleyway, the car’s motor as rust-rotted through as his heart. There, amidst the lightning flashes and ellipses of thunder, he notes a car idling behind him. A large figure lumbers between the raindrops, dropping something sizable, something significant, into a trashcan in the alley, before hurrying back to its vehicle.
And you’d think this is the kind of film in which Bone would investigate what mystery was left in the trash.
But it isn’t.
Instead, Bone does what he does best, and walks the other way.
Because that could have been something that mattered.
A dismembered and drunk-dragled body sits at a barroom table. An eye-patch shields the scarred cavity where his left orb should be. A sleeve hangs limp where there is no left arm. A crude fusion of metal and plastic affixes a simulacrum of a leg to his cratered stump of a left thigh. The man’s hyperactive brain belts out coarse, twisted references to Hamlet and Moby Dick in a graveled voice, like something hacked from a glass-shredded throat.
Vietnam vet Alex Cutter (John Heard) holds court in the dingy saloon, proclaiming and prognosticating and proselytizing to anyone bored or drunk enough to listen —including his best/worst friend, Richard Bone, who comes in out of the rain looking to bum a ride. What Bone finds, though, is Cutter doing what he does best: tempting oblivion and then using his obviously broken body to skirt the consequences. Cutter lobs racial slurs like grenades at a nearby group of Black men playing pool, then goes so far as to tease them for taking offense as they loom over him with pool cues. Finally, they eye his battle-torn body and finally disperse as Bone mutters excuses to them like, “the war, you know?”
And you’d think this would be the moment a warmth would flare between these two bastards — one damaged within, the other without — in which they bond in their mutual misery at the end of a rotten decade of busted dreams and collapsed lives for their entire generation. But they don’t. Instead, Bone steals Cutter’s car keys and walks away from a moment of meaning, while Cutter continues to taunt it. Because to do anything else would be to do something that matters.
A ghostly and silent body drifts, weightless, sparrow-structured, through a dark home lit muted orange by an electric furnace. Her small hand curls around a fresh bottle of vodka as she floats from room to room before finding Bone warming himself at the furnace, flirtatiously peeling off his rain-soaked clothes.
Maureen “Mo” Cutter (Lisa Eichhorn), Alex’s wife, refuses Bone’s sexaholic come-ons while she does what she does best: drink herself numb as she waits for the Alex Cutter she loves to somehow come back to life within the broken body he’s now imprisoned, and banish the abusive drunken monster he’s become.
“Any minute now, Prince Charming will ride by on his grand white charger and take me in his arms,” she whispers sadly to Bone, her voice a heartbreaking tremor, “and carry me away.”
Bone balks, arguing her dream of Cutter’s resurrection will never come, adding that “my charger’s got a bad battery, but will I do?”
Their night aches onward that way. Mo quelling her anguish with booze, swilling herself deeper and deeper into a caustic pit of despair to wait out Cutter’s madness, while Bone attempts to assuage his limpid agony with the sex she refuses to give him. Mo hints obliquely there was time before Alex in which Bone could have had her, but didn’t. He took “Richard Bone’s famous walk” away from a woman he couldn’t/can’t admit he loves. They continue to spar into the night, miserable and pathetic, sinking further into the resentful, cutting conversation of two almost-lovers.
And you’d think this film is the story of how two men, catalyzed by the death of a teenage girl, find redemption by bringing the mystery of her killer to justice and, finally redeemed, rescue this broken woman they both love.
But it isn’t.
Because this is a world in which nothing matters anymore. The bodies twist, the bodies break, and in the end none of it really seems to matter, because it never, ever stops.
Bodies twist throughout the entirety of Cutter’s Way (1981), soft and vulnerable things, crushed beneath the boots of time and the cruel power of others. From the opening frame — in which the bodies of Hispanic dancers are on display in a crass Santa Barbara parade known as “Old Spanish Days,” only to be overtaken by a white dancer costumed in a gaudy approximation of Spanish culture, co-opting the focus of the white moneyed crowd whom they all serve to please.
Bodies exist to be exploited by forces greater than themselves. Bodies of immigrants. Bodies of soldiers. Bodies of women.
Adapted by director Ivan Passer/screenwriter Jeffrey Fiskin from Newton Thornburg’s 1976 Vietnam hangover novel Cutter and Bone, Cutter’s Way isn’t a buddy comedy, even though its lead characters are fitfully buddies and wickedly funny. It isn’t a detective movie, either, even though Cutter obsessively investigates the death of a Santa Barbara teenager. It isn’t a mystery, even though the mystery of the killer’s identity drives the film’s bleak plot to its devastating gunshot of an ending.
Forever eluding conclusive definitions, Cutter’s Way is an icily complex tragedy, so corrosively despondent with the outcome of the 1970s, of the Vietnam War, of the American Dream, of each and every one of our lives, of fucking everything, that it stands as one of the most grimly existential American films ever made. It indicts its heroes and villains as monsters alike, each pulling the other lower and lower into lives lived without meaning or purpose before closing with an ending of such monumental bitterness as to be practically Lovecraftian in its portraiture of unimaginable human emptiness.
A beachbummed neo-noir stained not with neon but with the soul-crushingly yellowed sunlight of aimless and empty Sunday afternoons, Cutter’s Way is a movie designed to be alienating and unloved and held at arm’s length, one that lacerates its viewers just as its characters do one another. No chase sequences or adrenalized shootouts, no moments of heart-stirring justice, no detective having a laugh with his fucking cat — just a trio of shattered souls physically and spiritually handicapped by a decade of post-60s despair, verbally ripping one another nerve from nerve in the kind of drunken, late-night diatribes that presage suicide.
A picture of psychological carnage as grisly as any cathode-tubed war footage, in Cutter’s Way the impetus towards heroism is selfish and empty, the ostensible heroes as culpable as the villains. Like a rawboned, more intimate and less sprawling Chinatown (1974), it traces a line from the exploited to the exploiters and back again, locating a closed feedback loop in which both exist side by side, eternally feeding off of one another. The exploiters endlessly decimate the exploited, who in turn actualize and empower their exploiters through weary acceptance and inaction. A never-ending circle of hell that not only details the power structure of America itself, but the toxic and shifting dynamics that both bond and goddamn Alex, Richard, and Mo together.
It’s from this vantage that the strange and borderline-unknowable Cutter’s Way and its characters sit, bottle-drinking on a broken glass-strewn shore. The stinking foam of the ocean coldly laps at their feet like the painful memories of what was, as they drink and curse and fuck themselves into obliterative paralysis while the sun of the last decade sinks slow behind the horizon. They dissolve into the darkness that remains, surrounded by forces of depravity that they cannot see and can hardly comprehend.
In this slippery darkness, Alex Cutter and Richard Bone are just as responsible for the doom that comes as the killer they haphazardly track. In this darkness, Cutter and Bone live without meaning or purpose, like shadow versions of the literature Cutter bloviates about in the bar. Bone is a Hamlet without a crisis, Cutter is Ahab without a white whale. That is, until both are catalyzed to the furthest extremes of their worst instincts when they learn that what Bone witnessed was the dumping of a murdered cheerleader’s body…and that the all-powerful local millionaire/oil tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), imperiously riding one of his treasured stallions like a conquering colonizer at the tail end of the most recent Old Spanish Days parade, looks vaguely similar to the rain-hidden shape Bone saw moving in the oily shadows of the alleyway.
Cutter and Bone’s reactions to this deeply ambiguous “revelation” (almost nothing is ever certain in the world of Cutter’s Way) are as predictable as they are enigmatic. Both men have negated confrontation with consequences for so long, one via taunts, the other via avoidance, that long stretches of the film are nearly (and purposely) impenetrable in terms of understanding their true motivations. All we can be sure of is that something horrible, something malignant, has grown around them on their watch while they lost themselves in a decade of barroom skirmishes and hotel fucks.
So it should come as no surprise that Cutter tilts at the windmill that is J.J. Cord, obsessed with the notion that he’s responsible, if not for the murder, than at least for something.
“He’s responsible. For everything," the bombed out vet barks, "him and all the motherfuckers in the world just like him. They’re all the same.”
But is Cutter making yet another nihilistic charge towards a force that could easily destroy him, just to taste the thrill of escape? Is he wantonly attacking a random plutocrat simply to make someone pay for his missing limbs and life? Or does he truly believe Cord is a killer in need of justice?
Meanwhile, Bone throws himself in the opposite direction, convincing himself he saw Cord in the lobby of his hotel tryst and mistakenly transposed his face onto the killer. Is Bone making another “famous walk” away from a consequential act? Is he afraid that Cord — killer or not — may enact some kind of terrible vengeance in response to Cutter’s growing provocations? Or does he truly believe the man is innocent?
For a time, the film’s mute permafrost chill of silence leaves this tangle of questions as unanswerable as the central murder mystery. Eventually, the answers seem to lie in the growing certainty that the mystery of Cutter and Bone, rather than that of Cord the killer, is where the true horror lies. Evil is taken as a matter of course in Cutter’s Way. After all, pretty girls get killed all the time. Where are the heroes Cutter insists the world needs?
More answers emerge from the picture’s murky, sunburned fog as we watch Cutter drunkenly plow his prehistoric Buick into a neighbor’s poorly-parked car and then use his war-damaged body to convince a sympathetic cop to let him off easy. And again, when Bone walks away from the sister of the dead girl who pleads with him to help indict Cord as the killer.
“Nothing really counts, does it?” she asks him. “Not even murder?”
We are reminded that neither man can truly be trusted to commit to a purpose. To be responsible. To truly believe in doing the right thing, whatever the hell that actually is.They’ve seen too many horrors ooze like oil from the fields of Vietnam to the White House to the streets of Santa Barbara. Rich white men like Cord live in tacky “Spanish-style” mansions, while the poor struggle to exist next door in rundown antiques like Cutter’s, jutting out from the street like a decayed teeth, the film’s exploitation loop connecting heroes to villains in local real estate.
Instead, Cutter crafts a ridiculously ramshackle blackmail plot, instructing Bone to deliver a letter to Cord’s office identifying him as the killer and demanding a payout. If Cord pays, he’s guilty. It’s Cutter’s laughable assault not just on Cord, but on the entire universe that traps Cutter and Bone with men like him. A universe he sees as a godless expanse of terrifying emptiness that informs American life, in which the powerful accumulate more power via force, while the rest of us leave them to it and retreat from any meaning or purpose into our own banalities. In the film’s most famous exchange (or as famous as a film as studio-disavowed and forgotten as Cutter’s Way can have), Alex uses the Vietnam War to diagram the nature of the existential food chain they are caught within:
“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'.
“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, Rich. I'm fuckin' starved.'"
But not for justice. As the world has fallen to pieces around them — a world of broken countries, broken dreams, broken bodies, broken homes, broken cars, and broken lives — Cutter has confused revenge with justice, his single, burning eye unable to see a difference between the selfishness fed by the former and sacrifice required for the latter. And it’s here that Cutter’s Way reveals its true intentions: For all of Cutter’s assertions that “the world needs heroes,” he and Richard are nothing of the sort. Cutter sees a chance to take advantage of the cycle of despair his life has locked into, and finally exploit one of the exploiters, even if it requires him to exploit his best friend and the body of a dead teenager in the process.
Bone, unable to commit to even his own insouciance, lackadaisically agrees to deliver the blackmail letter directly to Cord’s office building. The idea of catching Cord becomes like a game to them (indeed, they eventually await his response by playing target practice games at the Santa Monica Pier) rather than a life or death opportunity to avenge a teenager’s death, achieve justice, or redeem their gutter-strewn lives. Ultimately, Cutter’s way (and Bone’s) is as much of a sham as the world they decry — it’s a life lived and a game played without responsibility or purpose, as decadent and risky as the lives of the men they purport to oppose. J.J. Cord, or whoever fucked and crushed that poor child’s body, are not the villains of this story — Alex Cutter and Richard Bone are.
It’s a notion that only Mo, the film’s lone moral compass, seems to comprehend. Whatever horrors she shows herself willing to endure while awaiting Cutter’s resurrection, outright criminality isn’t one of them.
“A band of would-be extortionists? Really? Dishonorable and gutless!” She shouts when they confess the plan. “Guts is hanging around in this pigsty month after month, waiting for you to get the nerve to start living again, and what does it get me? You and your fucking cronies in the playpen planning a dumb crime!”
Only Mo seems to recognize both the danger in poking a man like Cord, the futility of it, and the inherent wrongness of it. Only she seems to understand that a life of purpose — redemption, even — could yet be achieved if Alex could actually embrace responsibility over his bull-waving at death. Yet no matter how furiously she protests, Cutter can’t resist the lunar pull of revenge against a life that crippled him…a fact made heartbreakingly clear moments later.
“I’m like your leg,” Mo screams, begging him to stop, “sending messages to your brain and there’s nothing there anymore.” The pop of Cutter’s remaining hand striking Mo’s face ends the conversation, and by the pained look in both their eyes, their marriage as well.
“It’s the way of the world,” Mo laments at one point. The world is a cold and dissolute one, and all things tend towards oblivion. Marriages, dreams, lives. Her dream of a resurrected Alex Cutter dissolves as he strikes her, a dream broken like the bodies riddled throughout the film. And that’s the truth that lies beneath the mystery of Cutter’s Way, as we watch the film’s “hero” break the dream of the film’s one truly decent character — that these men are just as culpable for the tragedies that massacre them as are men like Cord, if not more so. Their abandonment of meaning and responsibility to achieve their retreat to easy living shatters and exploits the dreams of other, better people. The dark brilliance of Cutter’s Way is how it discovers and charts the jagged fault line that stretches from the generational fatigue of “we blew it” (in Easy Rider ) to the smoldering capitulation and selfishness of “I’m fucking starved”; the horrible tragedy of Alex Cutter is that he, and Bone, will only ever recognize this once it’s too late.
And then it really won’t matter anymore.
Two bodies come together, fucking in the amber dusk-light of the Cutters’ bedroom, one sticky with sweat and the other with tears. Bone has worn Mo down, and she succumbs with a weary “I guess we don’t have that much to lose.” Their two bodies come together, the vacuous hardness of his and the sweet softness of hers, and Mo cries with a sorrow that is difficult to watch. They’re alone in the house — Bone has admitted to Cutter that he never actually left any letter for Cord (he was unable to commit even to that), and Cutter has left them alone to do the job himself.
And so it is here that these two bodies come together, and so it is here that they are doomed.
Later, as they sit before the unholy glow of the electric furnace, Mo confesses to Bone that “when I wake up in the night and I can’t sleep, I have to go and look and see if I’m still here.” Only a ghost of the woman she was before Cutter remains. She begs Bone to stay the night, just this one night, to keep her intact and from dissolving into her hell of nightly nothingness, and he agrees.
But then he leaves. As soon as Mo’s eyes close to sleep, Richard Bone does what he does best, his “famous walk,” and slinks out into the night. He walks away from this reckoning with something meaningful and its potential for consequences, goddamn him, and so he isn’t there to save Mo when a fire consumes the Cutter home. When Mo’s body is burned and broken down by fire to a thing that could fit in a small drawer. A fire that could just as easily have been the faulty furnace, or a commission of suicide after Cutter and now Bone’s abandonment...or an attempt by Cord to kill Bone, who eased out of the house unseen. And it’s a mystery that will never be solved, because it doesn’t really matter.
Two bodies come together, charging through the brittle haze of Santa Barbara sunlight. One breathes in flared and furious exertion, the other screams in rage and agony. Bone sits atop Cord’s prized galloping white stallion, the same horse Cord rode upon in the Old Spanish Days parade. These two bodies, one broken and one perfect, tear through Cord’s garden soiree. Minutes earlier, Bone had tried to convince Cutter not to sneak in, not to face Cord.
“What’s this gonna prove? It’s not gonna change anything. It’s not gonna bring her back. It’s not gonna make you whole again” Cutter made it clear his plan is no longer to taunt Cord into some kind of actionable admission. Though it is far too late, Alex Cutter decides to commit to a course of action without dodging the consequences — he’s going to kill J.J. Cord, the only form of justice he has left to offer Mo’s memory. Unable to bring her back, all Cutter can do is resurrect Mo’s dream of him as Prince Charming atop a white charger, and commit to a purpose.
And so it is here that these two bodies come together, charging at Cord’s mansion, and so it is here that they are doomed.
Having been caught by Cord’s guards, Bone sees Cutter coming. He sees him from the giant picture window in Cord’s office, where the millionaire has been calmly interrogating him with unnervingly impenetrable banality. Cord and Bone both watch in shock as Alex Cutter makes his kamikaze run and commits, charging at something of consequence full speed. And when Cutter hurls his own body from the horse and through Cord’s window, his form breaks for the final time. Bleeding out on the floor, the final thing he hears is his best/worst friend saying, over and over, either out of gallows comfort or genuine conviction, “Alex, it was him! It was him!”
But it’s a mystery that will never really be solved, because it really doesn’t matter.
Two bodies come together, fingers interlocked above a prismatic sea of sun-glinted glass shards and a spreading sea of lifeblood. One breathing the last breath of his life, the other breathing the first of his life, of a real life. Because for the first time, Richard Bone doesn’t walk. In Cutter’s dead, clinched hand is a service pistol. Bone wraps a perfect paw around his friend’s and, shaking, turns the gun on Cord.
“It was you,” Bone mumbles.
Cord offers a coy half-smile of bemused disgust, and replies, “And what if it were?”
Cord slides on a pair of mirrored sunglasses to hide his eyes. In those mirrored cavities, Bone sees himself reflected back — just as we met him, haunted by what he sees in his reflection.
And so it is here that two bodies come together, Cutter’s hand wrapped in Bone’s, and two men finally embrace that which they’ve refused to confront — one meaning, the other consequence — to bring about a solitary act of ambiguous justice. One broken spirit and one broken body unite, and so it is here that they are doomed.
There’s the roar of a gunshot as the image of Richard Bone making the first and likely last real choice of his life cuts to black, and the story ends. We are left in the darkness that follows with the broken pieces — was this justice? Was Cord really a killer? How many moments does Bone have left before Cord’s guards torture him to death? Did any of this really count?
And that’s the final mystery of Cutter’s Way: did any of this count? Maybe what these two men did that day means something. Maybe it means nothing. Maybe it means everything. But not to Cord, and not to Mo, and not to Cutter, and not to Bone.
Because they’re gone, and this hungry world of dead girls and oil tycoons and broken bodies...it goes on.
Travis Woods is a Contributing Editor and writer at Bright Wall/Dark Room, and the host of Increment Vice, a podcast exploring Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice one scene at a time (really).