John Heard's Alex Cutter is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He desperately wants to get involved in something, anything to stop living life in a bottle of alcohol. And so, he latches on to the murder mystery with the ferocious tenacity of a pitbull. Heard plays Cutter like a character straight out of a Tom Waits song. His performance, complete with raspy voice and cynical outlook on life, recalls many of the down-on-their-luck losers that populate Waits' songs.
Lisa Eichhorn's Mo is a complex character torn between being loyal to her physically crippled husband and falling in love with the emotionally crippled Bone. It is this conflict that makes her a tragic figure and Eichhorn is able to show this struggle in her tortured facial expressions and body language.
Gurian gave Fiskin a list of directors and Passer's name was the only one the screenwriter didn't recognize. Fiskin and a couple of United Artists executives screened Passer's Intimate Lightning and agreed that he was the man to direct Cutter and Bone. The director was already involved with another film but after he read Fiskin's script, he wanted to do it.
Despite Field's support for the film, it seemed like United Artists did everything in their power to prevent Cutter and Bone from being made. The initial budget was supposed to be $3.3 million but then Field found out that U.A. would only make the movie if the filmmakers were able to reduce the price tag to under three million dollars. Passer and company played along. Then, U.A. said that the film needed a big name star for it to succeed at the box office. The studio liked Jeff Bridges' work in the dailies for Michael Cimino's opus Heaven's Gate and said that they would only make Cutter and Bone if the filmmakers got the actor to be in their movie. Passer cast John Heard after seeing him in a production of Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello. The studio wanted a star but the director insisted on Heard. Lisa Eichhorn was cast as Mo after she successfully auditioned with Bridges.
If Passer felt that United Artists was not behind Cutter and Bone (they spent a meager $63,000 on promotion) it did not help that when it premiered in New York City in late March 1981 all three daily papers and the three major network critics gave it bad reviews. Perhaps the most damning one came from Vincent Canby in The New York Times which was the nail in the coffin for Cutter and Bone in the minds of U.A. executives. He wrote, "it's the sort of picture that never wants to concede what it's about. It is, however, enchanted by the sound of its own dialogue, which is vivid without being informative or even amusing on any level." The studio was so shocked by the negative reviews that they planned to pull the film after only a week. Unbeknownst to them, the next week Richard Schickel in Time, David Ansen in Newsweek, and New York City's weekly newspapers would write glowing reviews urging everyone to see the film. Ansen wrote, "Under Passer's sensitive direction, Heard gives his best film performance: he's funny and abrasive and mad, but you see the self-awareness eating him up inside."
The positive reviews prompted United Artists to give Cutter and Bone to their "art" division, United Artists Classics, where they changed the film's title to Cutter's Way (thinking that the original title would be mistaken by audiences for a comedy about surgeons) and entered it into a number of film festivals. At Houston's Third International Film Festival it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (John Heard). A week later, it was given the prestigious closing feature slot at the Seattle Film Festival. With a new ad campaign in place, Cutter's Way re-opened in the summer of 1981 in Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City. Passer was understandably bitter about the whole experience, commenting in an interview, "You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it."