Opening today at the Key, "Cutter's Way" is an allegorical crime thriller that has its roots in the Vietnam War. Originally known as "Cutter and Bone," from a 1977 novel by Newton Thornburg, it opened last spring to sporadic critical acclaim and spotty business. The principal characters, brilliantly embodied in the film by John Heard and Jeff Bridges, are named Alex Cutter and Richard Bone.

Cutter and Bone live in a countercultural twilight zone that lingers in the aftermath of Vietnam. The deceptively attractive California locale -- Santa Barbara -- is exploited with menacing effectiveness by director Ivan Passer and cinematographer Jordan Croneweth.

Linked by a romantic triangle -- Bone carries a torch for Cutter's long-suffering spouse, Mo, impersonated with maddening monotony by Lisa Eichhorn -- Cutter and Bone are implicated in a mercenary criminal scheme envisioned in part as a desperate act of self-justification, a kind of redemptive suicide mission.

Bone appears first. A sleekly tanned wastrel, he works none too hard as a yacht salesman while obliging dissatisfied society women. Cutter is encountered in the second sequence, when Bone tracks him down in a neighborhood bar, returned from combat in Vietnam minus one eye, one arm and one leg. His maimed body would be sufficient to sink the characterization if Heard's performance weren't so electrifying and insinuating. At a glance, Alex Cutter even resembles Captain Ahab. Upon noticing Bone, Cutter refers to him contemptuously as "Ishmael," instantly reinforcing the Ahab identity.

As the plot unfolds, Bone is in fact drawn into a misadventure provoked by Cutter's compulsion to exact retribution. But with whom or what is Cutter craving to get even? The identity of the White Whale remains elusive and enigmatic. Cutter's self-destructive obsession takes the form of a speculative blackmail conspiracy directed at a fat cat, a corporation executive named J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), who may have murdered a wayward teen-age girl. Still, one suspects that Cord is never the primary object of Cutter's revenge.

On the night of the girl's murder Bone was a remote, unwitting eyewitness to the disposal of the corpse. He can't positively identify either the car or the driver that appeared behind his own stalled car on that rain-drenched night and then accelerated out of sight, after dumping the brutalized victim. The episode is depicted with flawless ambiguity; like Bone, we see something suspicious in the murk, but it would be impossible to make a positive ID.

However, while watching an annual "frontier days" parade with the Cutters, Bone is impulsively moved by the appearance of Cord, the grand marshal, and mutters, "It's him." Cutter, a born troublemaker, seizes on this unguarded moment and tries to force an admission from his friend that Cord was the mysterious motorist in the alleyway. While feeling it to be true, Bone is loath to acknowledge the hunch to Cutter.

Despite Bone's disavowal, Cutter knows what he knows -- or prefers to believe -- and pushes ahead with a reckless blackmail plot. Bone plays along, hoping to limit the risk and damage by pretending to take the initiative, but in the long run he's forced to act against his better judgment and go the distance as Cutter's avenging accomplice.

On the surface it appears that Cutter is out to get Cord, a vague, cliche'd personification of untouchable, power-wielding "evil." Moreover, the whirlwind finale invented by Passer and screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin would seem to validate this interpretation. However, there's another interpretation that carries more emotional impact: Cutter is out to get Bone. Not kill him, but compel him to put his life on the line and pay belated generational dues.

Although Cutter makes it a point to antagonize everyone, his sharpest needle is always reserved for Bone. Cutter can't forgive this fellow stud for being an evader, for preferring to follow the line of least resistance in life. He goads Bone into taking reckless chances and mortal risks, and it seems clear that Cutter regards this manipulation as a settling of accounts.

When Richard Bone remarks that the blackmail scheme has put him in the most exposed position, Alex Cutter sardonically agrees: "On the point, which is the place to be, Rich. Purple Heartland, we used to call it. The ideal place to learn all about yourself."

The essential conflict -- and embittered love relationship -- is played out between Cutter and Bone. Heard and Bridges succeed in embodying contradictory responses to life -- the aggressive as opposed to the passive, the impulsive as opposed to the rational, the heroic as opposed to the timorous, the self-destructive as opposed to the self-protective. The contrast generates unexpected pathos because one's allegiance is never allowed to shift decisively toward one man or the other.

You know Cutter is bad news, a hothead who would have been attracted to danger if war had never beckoned, but there's also something irresistibly stirring and challenging in his appetite for violence and his harsh code of honor. In a similar respect, you recognize the mixture of attraction and repulsion in Bone's behavior. It makes sense to take his cautious approach, to temporize, to avoid the trouble that Cutter actively seeks, yet that disposition also has profound disadvantages, not the least of them being a sense of having failed to measure up in a fundamental way when confronted by Cutter's example.

The ongoing and presumably permanent political controversy about intervention in Vietnam doesn't have a crucial bearing on the conflict between Cutter and Bone, which is closer to a symbolic drama about warring, unresolved aspects of human nature.

While you don't come out of this movie feeling pleased, you may come out feeling mysteriously affected, muttering to yourself, "This one is on to something . . ."