John Heard is one of the greatest character actors ever. And his performance in Cutter's Way might be the best in film history.
In 1981, a neo-noir came out called Cutter's Way. It was the story of a womanizer, played by Jeff Bridges, who thinks he sees a rich businessman dump a woman's body in an alleyway. As the only witness to the crime, the police brush away his testimony. The only person who believes him is his alcoholic and Vietnam PTSD-ridden friend, played by John Heard.
What evolves from this story is a gripping and sometimes hilarious look at two average Joes investigating a crime, as well as a tragic downfalls of a man so gripped by the horrors of Vietnam that his best friend cannot tell whether or not he's having a damaging flashback or really onto something in the investigation.
At the center of this is Heard's performance, truly one of the greatest if not the greatest ever captured on film. Heard plays a man who lost an arm, eye, and portion of his leg in the service. He curses, drinks, drives, and someone manages to steal the movie away from a nuanced Bridges and a touching and brutal Lisa Eichhorn.
I saw this movie for the first time thanks to Criterion's Neo-Noir month, and I can't shake it. Heard disappears into the role and demands the audience's attention at every beat. He's self-destructive, vindictive, embarrassing, and yet we cannot shake that America did this to him by sending him over there. It's truly one of the most magnificent performances, and it will change the way you think about writing or directing characters.
Take a look at this scene from the middle of the movie where Heard's character Cutter comes home drunk. It goes from insanely comedic to sad back to funny, and ends somewhere between tragic and slapstick. It's all about escalating tensions and outrageous behavior.
This is also a masterclass in writing a character, always toeing the line of what you can say or do. This is a movie about a man unraveling just as his country did. It's an excellent metaphor about how the poor bear every burden while the rich throw parties.
But it's also a criminally underseen masterpiece that should be talked about much more. We often praise those who go method in modern cinema, but this film contains something akin to human dynamite. Heard was not nominated for an Academy Award—or any award for that matter. It's hard to say but if a movie like that came out now it feels like everyone would be talking about what they saw on the screen.
I'm still shaken and still laughing. If you have not seen it, check it out.
Let me know what you think is the greatest acting performance of all time in the comments.