What is this film about? To say it is a noir, as a number of online commenters do, is a mistake. Regardless of the novel Cutter and Bone, from which it was adapted, the film is ambiguous in the most beautiful way. Whereas film noir requires as its necessary condition, a setting of moral turpitude in which all are guilty, although they may not yet realize it.
The three central characters of this film may at first appear to fulfill this condition. Cutter, played by John Heard, is a disabled Vietnam vet with but one leg, arm and eye, and a mouth that drips of the poetry and squalor of Rimbaud. Bone (Jeff Bridges) works for a sailboat dealer and services bored bourgeois wives, and lacks a compass, moral or emotional. Mo is Cutter’s wife and is dying, it appears, of either alcoholism or something worse.
Moreover, these three characters are opposed by a local oil magnate who may have, as Bone might have witnessed on a rainy night, dumped the body of a young girl after killing her. But J.J. Cord is mainly a shadow character. If he was the killer seen in the film’s first five minutes is never clear, and in the film he only appears at a distance several times, usually sitting on a horse by himself (in a parade and at a polo match), until the final scene. He is mainly absent, the subject of conspiracy and caricature.
The complicating action and development of the film (Kristin Thomson’s terms for the second act of a film, the first and third parts being the setting and climax)—the body of the film, as it were—concern Cutter’s amateur sleuth concluding that Cord must have been the killer, considering a series of circumstantial clues, and the plan conceived by Cutter and the murdered girl’s sister to blackmail Cord and then turn him over to the police. Bone is an unwitting and unwilling companion to both. He first recognizes Cord from a parade, after having been interrogated by the police as a potential suspect, and points him out to Cutter. Then he reluctantly pretends to be an accomplice to Cutter’s blackmail, hoping to sabotage the plan from within.
From this description, it might very well seem that the film is in many ways a traditional noir. But Cutter’s Way is insulated from noir, perhaps until the final scene, because it continually traffics in reality, whereas noir is always looking through a glass, darkly. Were I the pessimist I sometimes pretend to, I might conclude that noir and reality have much in common and that this distinction is false. To believe that, however, one would have to be convinced that ignorance and hope are ultimately immoral gestures. And I do not think they are, although I do not call them inherently benevolent either.
Cutter’s Way is not a noir because the reality that surfaces repeatedly shows certainly very sad, pathetic and occasionally guilty people, but it also presents a serious doubt that they are truly guilty. To put this differently, the film is not noir because these characters may simply be humans, neither truly good nor evil, and the crime may have nothing to do with them. This is the central ambiguity of this film, whereas it seems very clear to me that noir depends on the idea of distinct moral values, in which indifference or neutrality are impossible. To put this differently yet again, Nietzsche would have hated noir.
Allow me to present several paradigmatic scenes that disrupt the necessary conditions of noir:
(1) Bone shows up at the bar where Cutter is holding court. Cutter goes around his group, introducing them up to the last person, a black man, who Cutter calls the “court nigger”. This immediately causes the latter visibly expresses irritation as well as that of others. A couple of black men who’d been playing pool walk over after hearing this. But Cutter does not back down. Instead, he decries the limitation of the choices allowed for a liberal in referring to blacks. When Bone suggests foul, Cutter points out that he wasn’t uncomfortable with this word when his car was stolen. Nothing happens. The moment passes.
(2) After having told his lover that he had to visit an ill friend, he eventually ends up at Cutter’s house, which is apparently where he lives part of the time, and encounters Mo, Cutter’s wife, with whom there is some kind of mutual attraction. Is Mo ill? She is either drunk or stoned, and she uses the phrase “considering …” to describe her condition, although that may be an existential condition. It may have only to do with the state of her marriage to Cutter, which is clearly unhappy on the part of both. Cutter continually comments on his preference to bed other women, such that in front of Mo he will talk with Bone about high school cheerleaders. But Mo is also merely just barely alive. She has no work and seems to generally despise Cutter, if not Bone.
(3) When trying to elicit a conscience and an accomplice from Bone, Cutter discusses how, as a result of modern life, repeated experiences with, for example, the sight of dead women or children, quickly move from trauma to indignation to banality.
(4) Cutter and Mo have an extended comic dialogue about food as an alien substitute for alcohol, when she comes home with groceries. Cutter cleverly remarks, food, isn’t that something people were forced to eat during Prohibition?
(5) Finally informed about Cutter and Valerie’s intended blackmail of Cord, Mo is furious at their stupidity and immorality, extending the web of guilt to Bone in the latter’s apathy.
So to summarize:
(1) Noir cannot speak to the truth of prejudicial terms (the prejudicial term, in fact), such as nigger. It cannot face the ambiguity of these terms. Instead, it assumes the violence and hatred expressed in them.
(2) Death or illness cannot be uncertain, tenuous.
(3) Noir cannot thematize universal moral guilt. Noir is a genre wholly concerned with existential and, in connection therewith, moral guilt. But when noir thematizes this matter (by which I mean explicit treatment), it becomes something other than noir because it admits the existence of a worldview separate from this.
(4) Noir cannot poke fun at itself and it cannot historicize. To historicize is to recognize the distance between the present and the past. But in noir fate is sovereign, and where present and past are distinct human freedom is possible.
(5) It’s not that in noir films there are no persons who are free from existential guilt, but this freedom manifests itself in extreme apathy. When moral paragons appear, the atmosphere is disrupted.