Published on March 23rd, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Short Cuts [1993]

Short Cuts [1993] Clint Davis

Summary: Robert Altman's masterpiece covers 22 primary characters and every human emotion, without losing its audience for a moment.


Truly Classic

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R  |  188 min.

Director: Robert Altman  |  Screenplay: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt (based on Raymond Carver’s short stories)

Starring: Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr., Lily Tomlin, Andie MacDowell, Fred Ward

Studio: New Line Cinema

Short Cuts is an example of what can happen when two masters of their craft combine for a single, unforgettable performance.  Among film’s great directors, Robert Altman may have been the best at blending multiple storylines among massive ensemble casts, while never losing his audience.  Fans of his work know that it’s not out of the ordinary to see at least 20 fully-fleshed characters with their own motivations and plots, in a single Altman film (Gosford Park, MASH, and the brilliant Nashville).

In Short Cuts, Altman follows 22 characters over the course of a few days as their various storylines blend and eventually settle independently.  The wide array of central characters come from the short stories of American author Raymond Carver.  Carver passed away in 1988, leading Altman to work closely with his widow on melting the various plots into a single, authentic onscreen world.  It’s a shame that Carver never got to experience Short Cuts, because the marriage of his short but powerful prose and Altman’s sprawling and unflinching style is one for the ages.

Perhaps what makes this film a masterpiece, in my opinion, is the level of trust the director gives his actors, and vice versa.  The vulnerability on display from a cast of this size is staggering, and makes the film both rewarding and engaging to its audience.   Truly every emotion is touched on in the film’s 3+ hours of running time, and the performer’s each answer the call.  When a movie of this size is attempted, it often comes off as a group of disjointed short films thrown together to make a feature film, rather than a single piece.  Short Cuts is paced in a way that never leaves you feeling confused or bored.  Altman & Frank Barhydt’s screenplay switches plots at the right moment and doesn’t shortchange any of its characters.

The film’s ensemble cast includes (L to R): Andie MacDowell, Tom Waits, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Lyle Lovett, Chris Penn, and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Whether it’s from a heart-wrenching story of every parent’s worst nightmare (Andie MacDowell & Bruce Davison), a sleazy LAPD officer with a hungry heart (Tim Robbins), an upper-class marriage that’s hanging by a thread (Julianne Moore & Matthew Modine), a group of buddies who find a dead body but wait three days to tell anyone because it would interrupt their fishing trip (Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry), or an aging jazz singer battling a serious alcohol problem (Annie Ross) — the viewer will float from one narrative to another without needing a map.  I’m not going to attempt to boil the storyline of Short Cuts down to a neat synopsis, but suffice it to say, the film’s themes include everything from chance’s role in life to not taking your loved ones for granted.

At its heart, this is an actor’s film.  With casts this size, it’s typical for some over/underacting to occur, but in Short Cuts, even the non-actors like Tom Waits, Huey Lewis, and Lyle Lovett hold their own with heavyweight dramatic pros like Chris Penn, Jack Lemmon, and Julianne Moore.  I’m a big fan of this character-driven style of filmmaking, and it’s clear that Short Cuts directly inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (which just happens to be my favorite film).

I can’t say enough about this film, and while it’s a shame that neither Robert Altman nor Raymond Carver are with us anymore, thankfully we have this collaboration to remind future generations how talented they both were.

Short Cuts may sound intimidating, but do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

Buy Short Cuts on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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