Short Cuts

Short Cuts is a 1993 American comedy-drama film, directed by Robert Altman. Filmed from a screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, it is inspired by nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. The film has a Los Angeles setting, which substitutes the Pacific Northwest backdrop of Carver's stories. Short Cuts traces the actions of 22 principal characters, both in parallel and at occasional loose points of connection. The role of chance and luck is central to the film, and many of the stories concern death and infidelity.

Short Cuts
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Altman
Produced byCary Brokaw
Screenplay by
  • Robert Altman
  • Frank Barhydt
Based onCharacters
by Raymond Carver
Music byMark Isham
CinematographyWalt Lloyd
Edited byGeraldine Peroni
  • Spelling Pictures International
  • Cary Brokaw Productions
  • Avenue Pictures
Distributed byFine Line Features
Release date
  • October 3, 1993 (1993-10-03)
Running time
188 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$6.1 million[2]

The film features an ensemble cast including Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Chris Penn, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand, Lori Singer, Andie MacDowell, Buck Henry, Lily Tomlin, actress and singer Annie Ross, and musicians Huey Lewis, Lyle Lovett and Tom Waits.


A fleet of helicopters sprays for medflies and reveals all the characters along the path of their flight. Dr. Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his wife, Marian (Julianne Moore), meet another couple, Stuart (Fred Ward) and Claire Kane (Anne Archer) – an out-of-work salesman and a party clown respectively – at Zoe Trainer's (Lori Singer) cello concert and make a spontaneous Sunday dinner date. Marian's sister, Sherri (Madeleine Stowe), is married to philandering cop Gene (Tim Robbins), who invents unbelievable stories to hide his affair with Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand). Betty is in the process of divorcing one of the helicopter pilots, Stormy (Peter Gallagher). Waitress Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin) is married to an alcoholic limo driver, Earl (Tom Waits). Television commentator Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison) lives with his wife, Anne (Andie MacDowell), and their young son, Casey (Zane Cassidy), next door to Zoe and her mother, cabaret singer Tess (Annie Ross). Their pool cleaner is Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn), whose wife, Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh), works from home as a phone sex operator, tending to the children while she talks off strange men. Jerry and Lois are friends with Doreen's daughter, Honey (Lili Taylor), and her husband, Bill (Robert Downey Jr.), who works as a makeup artist.

The day before the eighth birthday of Casey, Doreen hits him with her car as he is running to school. Casey appears fine and refuses Doreen's offer of a ride home, as she is a stranger. His mother comes home from ordering his birthday cake to find him slumped lethargically on the couch. Howard convinces her to take Casey to the hospital, where he remains unconscious. The baker, Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), calls the next day to inform Ann that the cake is ready, but Howard, wanting to keep the line free, briskly ends the conversation. The baker immediately calls back, incensed at being hung up on. While the Finnigans maintain their vigil, Bitkower continues to call and harass the couple. Howard's estranged father Paul (Jack Lemmon) turns up at the hospital and recalls that Casey's hospitalization reminds him of the day that Howard was in a car accident as a boy. When Howard's mother went to her sister's house, she found her in bed with her husband, whom she had seduced. That led to the estrangement between father and son.

Stuart and his two friends, Gordon (Buck Henry) and Vern (Huey Lewis), harass Doreen at the diner before they head out on their three-day fishing trip. On the first day, they find a young woman's body, submerged near some rocks. After some debate, they decide to tie her to the rocks, continue fishing, and report the body when they are done. When he comes home, Stuart eventually admits to Claire what they had done, and she is disgusted that they could fish for days with the woman's body nearby. The body is identified as a 23-year-old woman, and Claire visits the funeral home out of a sense of guilt.

Stormy visits Betty's house while she is away with their son Chad (Jarrett Lennon), ostensibly to pick up his mother's clock, but instead spends the day destroying her belongings. Bill and Honey entertain themselves in the apartment that they are watching while its owners are on vacation by taking some pictures of Honey in which Bill has made her up to look as if she has been brutally beaten. Gene abandons the family dog on a strange street because he cannot endure its barking, but after several days of his distraught children's inquiries, he returns to the neighbourhood and retrieves the dog, who has been picked up by Vern's family. The Wymans get into a massive argument just before their dinner party with the Kanes. Marian admits to an affair. Both couples alleviate their stress by drinking heavily, and the party lasts all night long.

One day, Casey's eyes begin to flutter. Ann's excitement grows, but just as he appears to be fully waking, he suddenly dies. Seeing that and being overwhelmed, Howard's father, Paul, leaves the hospital while the distraught couple returns home and informs Zoe of Casey's death. The next day, they go to the bakery to shame Bitkower over his abuse of them. When he learns why they never picked up the cake, he asks them to stay and gives them baked goods. Zoe, worn to the breaking point by her mother's alcoholism and her isolation, commits suicide by starting a car engine inside her garage; she plays the cello as she asphyxiates. Later that day, her mother discovers Zoe's death and is bewildered.

When Honey picks up the pictures from the developer, they are mixed up with Gordon's. He is horrified to see the pictures of Honey, who is apparently beaten so badly, and she is horrified by the pictures Gordon took of the submerged body on his fishing trip. They walk away from each other, memorizing each other's license plates. Honey and Bill are on their way to a picnic with Jerry and Lois. In the park, Jerry and Bill try to rape two young women they encountered earlier, and Bill quickly makes an excuse to divvy up into couples. As he and one of the girls walk away from Jerry and the other girl, they hear her scream. They turn around to see Jerry hitting her in the head with a rock, just as a major earthquake strikes. In the aftermath, Jerry's murder of the girl could be attributed to a falling rock during the earthquake.



According to associate producer Mike Kaplan, the screenplay was first written in 1989.[3] Filming primarily took place in Los Angeles, California. Principal photography began on July 26, 1992, and ended on October 1, 1992.[4]


A book was released to accompany the film, which compiled the nine short stories and one poem that inspired it. Altman wrote an introduction to this collection, which featured insights into the making of the film and his own thoughts about Carver's stories.

  1. "Neighbors"
  2. "They're Not Your Husband"
  3. "Vitamins"
  4. "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"
  5. "So Much Water So Close to Home"
  6. "A Small, Good Thing"
  7. "Jerry and Molly and Sam"
  8. "Collectors"
  9. "Tell the Women We're Going"
  10. "Lemonade" (poem)


The film was distributed by Fine Line Features and released in the United States on October 3, 1993. A special DVD edition was released by the Criterion Collection in 2004 and contains two discs, the collection of Carver's short stories, and an essay booklet on the film.


Short Cuts received positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 95% approval rating, based on 58 reviews, with an average rating of 7.81/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Robert Altman's ensemble drama deftly integrates its disparate characters and episodes into a funny, poignant, emotionally satisfying whole."[5] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 79 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[6]

Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote: "Los Angeles always seems to be waiting for something. Permanence seems out of reach; some great apocalyptic event is on the horizon, and people view the future tentatively. Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' captures that uneasiness perfectly in its interlocking stories about people who seem trapped in the present, always juggling."[7] Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "The lives are often desperate and the characters inarticulate, but the group portrait is as grandly, sometimes as hilariously, realized as anything the director has ever done."[8] Gene Siskel gave the film four out of four stars and called it "a brilliant companion piece" to The Player.[9] Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "is not equally involving all the time. Some performances are stronger than others, some situations more entertaining, and some choices Altman has made, like an overreliance on female nudity that borders on the exploitative, difficult to defend. But whenever interest lags, a look, a moment, a frisson of regret will cross the screen and the emotional connection is restored."[10] Rita Kempley of The Washington Post panned the film as "a cynical, sexist and shallow work" populated with "whiny, inert and mostly unlikable characters."[11]

Awards and nominations

Altman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (but lost to Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List) and shared a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay with Barhydt (lost to Steven Zaillian for Schindler's List). The cast won a Special Golden Globe Award for their ensemble acting. The film also won the prestigious Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup for Best Ensemble Cast at the Venice Film Festival.


  1. "SHORT CUTS (18)". British Board of Film Classification. 1993-10-05. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  2. Short Cuts at Box Office Mojo
  3. Kaplan, Mike (21 October 2009). "Bob Altman's big Short Cuts gamble". Retrieved 25 October 2017.
  4. "Short Cuts (1993) - Misc Notes". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 25 October 2017.
  5. Short Cuts at Rotten Tomatoes
  6. Short Cuts at Metacritic
  7. Ebert, Roger (October 22, 1993). "Short Cuts". Retrieved December 14, 2018.
  8. Canby, Vincent (October 1, 1993). "Altman's Tumultuous Panorama". The New York Times. C32.
  9. Siskel, Gene (October 22, 1993). "Altman'surreal 'Short Cuts' turns the everyday into art". Chicago Tribune. Section 7, page C.
  10. Turan, Kenneth (October 8, 1993). "Robert Altman Finds His Way to Carverville". Los Angeles Times. F12.
  11. Kempley, Rita (October 22, 1993). "'Short Cuts': Back Road To Hell". The Washington Post C1.
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