Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) may work at a Santa Barbara yacht club and make money on the side as a gigolo to bored, middle-aged wives of rich businessmen, but he doesn't see his place in life changing any time soon, as that place is indistinct and directionless. He currently lives with his best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a veteran of the Vietnam War who lost an arm, a leg and an eye in that conflict and exists on his disability payments, using the money mainly to get drunk. Cutter is married to Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who is in a similar state of going nowhere fast, and Richard has feelings for her he is reluctant to make plain. Then one night on his way home...
One night something happens to give him, and Alex and Mo, a real jolt, although not necessarily in a good way. This was based on the Newton Thornburg cult classic crime novel Cutter and Bone, and suffered a rocky road to what was only cult success itself, indeed both book and film have drifted out of the public eye for some years, if they were really ever part of it. Thornburg's novel was rightly lauded as an atmospheric and bleak work whose shocking last paragraph offered it as much notoriety among crime buffs as the rest of the book put together, but for some reason when it hit Hollywood, it was decided to allow the characters a more heroic resolution to their predicament.
But for many of the movie's fans, this was precisely the reason that they liked it, as it showed that the three main figures in the story were not completely worthless in society, as the book made them out to be though not without sympathy, and could make a difference. Although it was good to see we had not wasted our time with these people, turning the deliberately objectionable Cutter almost literally into a white knight riding to the rescue was too corny a manner to wrap things up, even if the fans might not admit it. Leading up to that denouement, however, was a film that captured the despair that its source had supplied in abundance, so perhaps a note of hope was necessary.
What happens is that Richard's car breaks down on his way home, and he ends up stranded in a side street in the pouring rain whereupon a car pulls up some way behind him, a man gets out and dumps something in the rubbish, then speeds off again, practically knocking Richard off his feet. He thinks no more of it until the next morning, and he is arrested on suspicion of murder - the dumped "something" was the body of a teenage girl, a cheerleader who had indulged in sexual activity before being killed. Bone manages to persuade the cops that he had nothing to do with the incident, and they are forced to let him go, but he, Cutter and Mo happen to be at a parade later on when Richard sees one of the celebration's patrons and in a flash realises that he is the shadowy figure he saw the previous evening.
Then, he's not so sure, finding it difficult to accept that this rich, local oilman could have been so reckless, but Cutter has other ideas. Seeing this as a chance to get back at the powerful men who cost him so dearly in his life, catching the killer becomes his obsession, and he drags the typically non-commital Bone along with him. A lot of what makes this so engrossing is that trio of perfomances at the story's heart, with Heard's fingernails down a blackboard rendering of Cutter's personality absolutely ideal, and Bridges, appropriately so often a star in lost causes as far as the success of his choices went, playing it numb and exasperated by the friend he only hangs around with because he loves Mo, and because without Alex he would probably be feeling nothing at all. They're of a lost generation, these three, and the film's odd, lethargic, almost woozy atmosphere is perfect for them to inhabit. If you don't respond to them and their situation, it's likely you won't get along with Cutter's Way; the book is better, but the film carved out its own cult niche for all that. Music by Jack Nitzsche.