John Heard is one of the greatest character actors of all time. And its performance in Cutter’s Way perhaps the best in film history.
In 1981 a neo-noir was released called Cutter’s Way. It was the story of a womanizer, played by Jeff Bridges, who believes he sees a wealthy businessman dumping a woman’s body in an alley. As the only witness to the crime, the police brushed his testimony aside. The only person who believes him is his alcoholic and Vietnamese PTSD-plagued friend, played by John Heard.
What develops from this story is a gripping and sometimes hilarious look at two average Joes investigating a crime, as well as the tragic downfall of a man so gripped by the horrors of Vietnam his best friend can’t tell if he is has a harmful flashback or not or really on something in the investigation.
The focus is on Heard’s performance, truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, that has ever been captured on film. Heard plays a man who lost an arm, an eye and part of his leg while on duty. He curses, drinks, drives and someone succeeds in stealing the film from a nuanced Bridges and a touching and brutal Lisa Eichhorn.
I saw this movie for the first time thanks The neo-noir month of the criterion, and I can’t shake it. Heard disappears into the role and demands the audience’s attention with every bar. He’s self-destructive, vengeful, embarrassing, and yet we can’t shake America’s doing this to him by sending him there. It really is one of the greatest performances and will change the way you think about writing or directing characters.
Check out this middle-of-the-film scene where Heard’s character Cutter comes home drunk. It goes from incredibly comedic to sad to funny and ends somewhere between tragedy and slapstick. It’s about escalating tension and outrageous behavior.
This is also a master class in writing a character, always sticking to the line of what you can say or do. This is a film about a man who is as untangled as his country. It’s an excellent metaphor for how the poor carry every burden while the rich throw parties.
But it’s also a criminally underrated masterpiece that should be talked about a lot more. We often praise those who are methodical in modern cinema, but this film contains something like human dynamite. Heard wasn’t nominated for an Oscar – or any other award. It’s hard to say, but when a movie like this comes out now it feels like everyone is talking about what they saw on screen.
I’m still shaken and still laughing. If you haven’t seen it, take a look.
Let me know in the comments what you think is the greatest acting performance of all time.