I read about this in Alternative Oscars, where Danny Peary picked John Heard’s performance in this to win Best Actor over Henry Fonda’s performance in On Golden Pond. I have to say: Peary isn’t entirely off base here. It’s been sometime since I saw On Golden Pond, and I remember that movie fondly, but Heard is great as Cutter, a disfigured veteran with a hard-on against the world. He plays the sort of man who you want to root for because he has had such a hard go of it, but he’s also such a miserable prick that you can’t quite stand him, either. The way that Heard juggles being sympathetic and repulsive at the same time is truly inspired.
Furthermore, Jeff Bridges is equally perfect as Richard Bone, Cutter’s only friend. This film makes great use of Bridge’s laconic charm by casting him as a guy who never goes far enough and then pitting him against a man who always goes too far. When Cutter comes up with a plan to blackmail a rich guy so he can finally get some of the things he feels that life owes him Bone is the one trying to convince him that threatening a powerful man is a bad idea. Their friendship grounds the movie, but it also provides most of it's tension since Cutter is right that Bone needs to be more proactive if he's ever going to get anywhere in the world and Bone is right that Cutter needs to stop fighting everyone all the time if he doesn't want to get crushed by the world. Their arguments are so evenly matched that you don't know which one of them will be proven right in the end until the end comes.
In many ways this film plays out like a noir - there's a crime, an investigation, a back and forth between the investigators and the culprit - but the quality of the character work really sets it apart from most genre movies. You can see echoes of Cutter and Bone in other places - in fact, the tension between Cutter and Bone is kind of similar to the tension that Walter has with the Dude, just a lot more serious - but the performances make these characters seem unique. Heard manifests Cutter's manic depressive swings so vividly that Cutter always seems vitally alive, and Bridges is so sympathetic as a man who is torn between helping out his friend in need and protecting himself from his friend that you are always on his side.
This is the sort of underappreciated gem that makes a nerd like me go out and buy books like The Alternative Oscars. It has a great script that builds the pressure slowly but surely, great performances and an electric denouement. This doesn’t deserve to be as overlooked as it is - although of course there is something fitting about Cutter's Way being forgotten, since that was the story of Cutter's life.