Saturday 4 March 2023

Red Rock West (1993)

Director: John Dahl
Writers: John and Rick Dahl
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, Timothy Carhart, Dan Shor and J. T. Walsh

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s a movie that surprised me. I can see why it didn’t succeed in the marketplace, as it plays very much like a film festival film, as one producer apparently suggested it should be, a suggestion the studio completely ignored and sold to cable instead.

It’s an odd mix of genres, unfolding rather like a cross between a western and a neo-noir, with Cage as a drifter called Michael Williams who keeps trying but keeps failing to leave the town of Red Rock, which is somewhere twelve hundred miles from Odessa, Texas. It was shot here in Arizona, in Willcox, Sonoita and Elgin, but it’s meant to represent Montana, I think.

It doesn’t really matter, because it’s a sort of Twilight Zone town, one that will take anyone in just like that but not spit you back out again until the story is done with you. And it takes a while for this story to be done with Cage.

He’s in the vicinity for a job, but he doesn’t get it because of a gammy leg, so asks the gas station owner, who he conspicuously chooses not to rob, where else he could try and he tells him Red Rock.

So he wanders into Wayne’s Place, where he is immediately mistaken for Lyle from Dallas, a hitman Wayne hired to kill his wife, Suzanne. The irony is that the cops will just pin it on a drifter—you know, like Williams—but it pays $5,000 up front with $5,000 more when the job is complete.

Of course, this honest drifter isn’t a killer, so initially he locates Suzanne and tells her what he was hired to do. She promptly hires him at double the rate to kill Wayne instead. And so Williams sends a letter to the sheriff to let him in on what’s going on and then leaves town with the cash he’s been given thus far. Bright man, right?

Except this is the Twilight Zone and he can’t just leave. There’s a storm raging and he hits someone, knocking him right over his car. He does the decent thing, of course, rushing this guy to hospital and even filling the paperwork out before he tries to sneak back out of there.

But—because you knew there had to be one of those coming—there are a bunch of twists showing up. The man he hit is the man whom Suzanne has been sleeping with. He wasn’t in bad shape because Williams hit him with his car; he’s in bad shape because he’s been shot twice in the stomach, meaning that the cops are very interested. And, get this, the sheriff is Wayne. Uhoh! And the web only gets more tangled from there.

Cage is on top form here, in a film that fits the outsider template that he’d been mining so well in some of his best performances, such as Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart. Williams is an everyman but an honest one who is caught up in events far beyond his control. That was new at this stage of Cage’s career.

Excellent character actor J. T. Walsh is good as Wayne, almost the opposite of Williams. He is emphatically a bad man and he started this house of cards toppling, but he doesn’t have a semblance of control over events either.

These two are the grounding for the movie, because they refuse to overplay their parts, in scenes that are fleshed out by a succession of scene-stealing characters who ought to simply take over but somehow never quite do.

Chief among those are Lara Flynn Boyle as Suzanne, the utterly blatant femme fatale of the piece, who we know without a shadow of a doubt is trouble from the first moment we set eyes on her, and the always reliable Dennis Hopper as the real Lyle from Dallas. He shows up late and, in another of the countless ironic twists on display here, rescues Williams on the road out of town, promptly drives him right back in again and insists on buying a fellow veteran a drink at Wayne’s Place.

Those twists keep on coming, the script the big winner here. It was written by the director of the film, John Dahl, with his brother Rick. He’s known for neo-noir, this coming after his debut with the Val Kilmer movie Kill Me Again but before his big hit, The Last Seduction. Since those, he’s moved into other genres and I like what I’ve seen. I should see more.

This is an unusual neo-noir and I’m wary of explaining why. Let’s just say that I adored the ending, which makes total sense and contains no real surprises, but unfolds in a way that I’m pretty sure most writers and directors would not have taken.

The real surprise, of course, is in how good this film is that eluded most people and never really found an audience except for film critics appreciative of genre-hopping originality. It’s fair to say that the major films Cage appeared in during his First Thirty aren’t all good and it seems just as fair to say that those films that are good aren’t all good because of him.

I wasn’t expecting much from this film, but it’s the first in quite a few to succeed on every level: as a movie, as a story, as a performance by Nicolas Cage, the works. I liked Honeymoon in Vegas but it’s hardly a movie with substance. Vampire’s Kiss, Never on Tuesday and Time to Kill are more interesting than good. Fire Birds and Zandalee are consistent failures, while Amos & Andrew is an ill-advised consistent failure.

So I expected this one to follow suit, but it’s the best film Cage had made since Moonstruck and the best for him since Raising Arizona. It’s a shame it didn’t get widely seen on the festival circuit, where it would have fit and where it could have built buzz before a wider release. It played TIFF in Toronto, which prompted some screenings but the studio had sold it to cable where it got seen a few times on HBO and then quickly lost in the rear view mirror.

I’d call it an important film for him at a time when he was reinventing his screen persona as a nice guy. Not a hero, like in Fire Birds; that sort of role was much better suited to others, but a nice guy the audience can relate to who’s caught up in events. I liked him in Honeymoon in Vegas and wanted him to win the day. I liked him in Amos & Andrew and wanted the happy ending he didn’t necessarily deserve.

And I liked him here in a film where I didn’t like a lot of characters. While it seems as if he ought to fit in the neo-noir town of Red Rock, he doesn’t fit at all, because Michael Williams has no intention of being in a neo-noir. He doesn’t want to be dragged down to the town’s level and that takes balls.


Karen said...

Whenever I'm asked to recommend neo-noirs, Red Rock West is always on the list. I've only seen it once, and that was many years ago, but my enjoyment stuck with me all this time. I'm so glad you reviewed it -- it is past time for a rewatch, and I'm looking so forward to it, because to be honest, I really don't remember a thing about it except that it stars Nicholas Cage! All I remember is that I thought it was a first-rate movie, so thank you for this excellent write-up, Hal! I'm going to dust off my VHS tape right now!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Here's a great example of the First Thirty becoming discovery for me. I'd never even heard of this film and would likely never have come across it if I hadn't tackled Cage's early films. But it's wonderful. I've definitely been recommending it ever since! Enjoy your revisit!