Thursday, April 24, 2003

Apocalypse Whenever: Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) and Cutter’s Way (1981)

The 1970s sucked. Don’t let anyone tell you differently either. While revisionist filmmakers love to perpetuate the smiley-faced myth of the supercool decade as one long groovy party with television shows like That ‘70s Show and features like Boogie Nights and 54, the real 1970s gave us Watergate, the Pet Rock, and paranoia as a way of life. It was an irony-free decade of hirsute men and women getting some afternoon delight while television programs like The Gong Show kept the Lazy-Boy inmates sedated. It was also the era of Vietnam, left-wing terrorists like the SLA and The Weathermen, and bands like The Eagles. The 1970s more than sucked.

But while the cities burned and the crime rate soared, Hollywood was churning out some of the finest films ever. Directors like Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Paul Mazurski, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, and of course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, all helped define the so-called New Hollywood, for better or worse. They were young, brash and most of all talented. When you examine the defining films of the decade -– Chinatown, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Nashville, Annie Hall, The Exorcist, An Unmarried Woman, Star Wars, Jaws, Coming Home –- you begin to see why they mattered, if only for the moment. But for every maverick filmmaker that came down the yellow brick road bent on kicking out the jams, there were other directors and writers who quietly slipped into the Emerald City to expose the rottenness that was punctuating much of American culture.

Based on Robert Stone’s award winning novel Dog Soldiers, Karl Reisz’s Who’ll Stop the Rain is a caustic, violent character study of three people who will do anything to hit the big payoff, make the permanent vacation, cash in on the Big Sell-Out. Michael Moriarty plays a shell-shocked ex-Marine turned war journalist who enlists the help of his Nietzche-reading Marine buddy, played by Nick Nolte, to smuggle two kilos of uncut heroin from Southeast Asia into California. Once there, Moriarty’s wife, played by Tuesday Weld, will help Nolte make the score and then the three of them can reap the immense financial benefits together. They’ll be set for life. But considering that life rarely goes as planned, things quickly fall apart. And when the CIA gets in on the action, things get even stranger and decidedly more deadly.

Although far from perfect, Who’ll Stop the Rain contains three very fine performances from its leads and from the supporting players as well. Paranoia runs deep through its veins, conjuring up nightmare visions of CIA drug smuggling and torture of American citizens. It’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the angel dust crowd. Bitter, corrosive and memorable. It’s occasionally awkward and meandering, ugly and ridiculous. But then again, so was the decade that it’s ripping apart.

Czech director Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way is even better. In fact, it’s arguably the best damn neo-noir film of the era, second only to Roman Polanski’s classic noir masterpiece Chinatown. Based on Newton Thornburg’s celebrated cult novel Cutter and Bone, the film is a descent into the sun-baked nightmare world of the rich, the oblivious, and the acid-soaked gravediggers that populate Santa Barbara circa the late 1970s. The film was released in 1981, but there’s no doubt what funeral it’s attending to. Cutter (John Heard), an alcoholic, half-crazed belligerent Vietnam vet with only one usable arm and a leg that’s seen better days, his best friend Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), who works part-time as a sail boat salesman and full-time as a gigolo/party boy, and Cutter’s wife Moe (Lisa Eichhorn), who spends her days and nights secluded in the house drinking endless bottles of vodka and waiting for the world to blink out once and for all, are all attendees at the funeral. But when Bone, on his way to meeting Cutter at a bar one night, witnesses a man dumping the body of a young woman into a trash dumpster, the brutal crime becomes a catalyst for these damaged souls to grasp one last time for a semblance of justice and for a balm of truth. Unfortunately, truth and justice don’t always mix nor do they come to those who need them the most. Some mysteries are simply never meant to be solved.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today. In a time when most productions, whether made within the constraints of Hollywood or not, are afraid to be ambiguous, or worse, afraid to leave the viewer feeling bad, a film like Cutter’s Way is worth more than a multitude of designer-nihilistic hand jobs like Fight Club or retro-tough guy noirs from Tarantino and his ilk. Cutter’s Way is about something real. It’s a cry from the iron lung, a wheeze of societal malaise and post-Vietnam burn-out. The film may be low on flash, but its subtle artistry and powerful performances more than cover the bill. It’s memorable stuff, and paired with Who’ll Stop the Rain, a reminder that the decade of the hustle was also the decade of disaster. Funny how things haven’t changed.

Both films are available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.

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