Red Rock West

An overlooked modern noir classic from an overlooked modern noir director.

Released in 1992, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 18 Sep 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Film noir. Whatever happened to it? The last massively successful attempt was probably Blade Runner, and even then it's probably more fair to file that one under Sci-Fi. Report's of the genre's demise have been greatly exaggerated however, as a hard core of directors for whom sultry looks and moody music are king continue to beaver away on some of the most atmospheric movies to grace celluloid. Released to critical acclaim and bugger all box office in 1992, Red Rock West is one of the finest examples of such a film; a mean and moody masterpiece from that purveyor of mean and moody masterpieces John Dahl.

Nicolas Cage plays Michael, a Texan drifter looking for work on a drilling crew. Driving 1,200 miles across state only to be refused employment because of a dodgy leg, Michael is shit out of luck, broke and low on gas. On the advice of a gas station attendant he stops off at the Red Rock bar in the small town of Red Rock West, Wyoming. The proprietor, Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) immediately offers Michael work on seeing his Texas number plate, only it's not really the kind of job he was looking for. It seems Wayne has mistaken Michael for a hit man called Lyle who hails from Dallas, and having already accepted the offer Michael finds himself expected to clip Wayne's unfaithful wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).

Far from being your average killer, Michael is nonetheless tempted by a vast sum of money and the promise of an easy alibi. Confronting Suzanne at home he highlight's Wayne's intentions and is given another offer by the understandably miffed wife; kill Wayne instead and get double the money. Obviously sensing impending disaster, Michael agrees but decides to run with the money, writing a note to Red Rock's sheriff informing him of the plot. Hot-footing it out of town that night, our unlikely protagonist knocks over a young man in his car and blighted by his conscience takes him to hospital. Awaiting the arrival of the sheriff, Michael is far from enamoured to discover that the local king of law enforcement is none other than Wayne. What's more the young man, who has been shot twice in the stomach, is a local ranch hand and Suzanne's lover. The sound of excrement contacting whirring blades becomes apparent.

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Taking Michael back to the cop shop, Wayne demands an explanation, his passenger insisting it's all a mistake and promising not to tell anyone if he's set free. Swerving off the road, Wayne attempts to create the impression Michael has broken free, affording him justification for shooting his charge and making an increasingly messy situation go away. By the skin of his teeth Michael manages to escape without being shot, but is very nearly run over himself as he stumbles across a highway. The driver of the car (Dennis Hopper) agrees to give him a ride to the nearest gas station, en route affording the opportunity for some character background exposition. The two find a common bond in that both were Marines, Hopper's character serving in Vietnam and Michael having sustained his leg injury in a truck bombing incident in Lebanon.

Stopping off back in Red Rock West, Michael is perturbed by his saviour's request that they stop off in the Red Rock bar for a drink. He nervously agrees after his new friend shows some offence at his reluctance, only to discover once inside that he's just shared a ride with a man called Lyle, from Dallas, who is looking for Wayne. Oh dear. Beating a hasty retreat for the toilets, Michael escapes on the roof of a truck just as Wayne returns and discovers what's happened. Wracked with guilt, Michael heads for Suzanne's house to come clean about his mistake and warn her of the danger she's in.

Closely followed by Lyle, the pair make a break after Michael renders the hitman unconscious. Stopping at a motel for the night, Suzanne makes the revelation that Wayne keeps a safe full of money under the floorboards in his office. If they play their cards right they can break in, steal the money and disappear to Mexico with enough cash to put them on easy street. Going against his better judgement and apparently ignoring the fact that luck just isn't on his side today, Michael agrees, surmising that it's his only opportunity to get out of this with anything to show for it. It comes as no surprise that Lyle throws a spanner in the works, apprehending the pair and deciding to make a bid for the money himself. Events spiral increasingly out of Michael and Suzanne's control as Wayne and Lyle face off with our protagonist stuck firmly in the middle, until the final climactic showdown that should, if you have a pulse, put your nerves well on edge.

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Of course at no point can you trust the motives or actions of anyone, Dahl spinning an incredibly complex web of deceit and misfortune that is the hallmark of the genre. Certainly the themes here are nothing new; mistrust, cheating wives, jealous husbands, hitmen and that old gem of mistaken identity. Where the movie excels beyond most others is in it's character portrayal (both the writing and performances), and the excellent atmosphere of the piece captured by some great photography and superb scoring.

Dahl's script, co-written with brother Rick, is a thing of twisted beauty. The town of Red Rock West is an almost dream-like locale, populated by loners and people whose sinister nature bubbles away just beneath the surface. It's these characters who give the film it's life, though certainly not much humanity. Everyone has a secret to hide, from Michael's military past to Suzanne's involvement in the ranch hand's shooting and the revelation that both she and Wayne are actually criminals hiding from the law by rather ironically being a part of it. The dialogue too is simple yet captivating; there's no pretentious banter between foes, nor is there the grating monologue-as-voiceover that often creeps into the genre, just the words of seemingly ordinary people becoming increasingly frustrated with their circumstance.

The performances Dahl has garnered from his stars complement the consummate nature of the rest of the production by being some of the best each of the actors involved have given. Cage as always excels as the unfortunate everyman, but then we would expect nothing less. Boyle, as irksome as she seems in the flesh, is superb as the deceptive man-eating Suzanne, smouldering away like a hot coal for the entire duration and proving a suitably irresistible yet deadly femme fatale. The late J.T. Walsh has also rarely been better, imbuing Wayne with a fitting sense of moral ambiguity and deviously underhand thinking. This is a man who thinks he has the upper hand and doesn't intend on letting anyone in on his secret, not even his wife. In a film where expression rather than action is key to witnessing a character's inner turmoil, Walsh firmly sets out his stall as having been one of cinema's most reliable supporting players, and a talent that will no doubt continue to be sorely missed.

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Unsurprisingly, however, it's Hopper who steals his every scene, giving Lyle a quirky, dangerous edge that leaves us in no doubt as to the character's killer credentials. Callous and cold as Wayne may be, Lyle is danger distilled, shooting cops in the head just because he can and smiling as he does it. That Hopper can play these kinds of character consistently without ever seeming to revert to clich? is something of a minor miracle, and here more than in most he ups the ante for cold-hearted killers with skill and no small amount of evil bravado.

Where the film really scores though is it's atmosphere. D.O.P. Marc Reshovsky captures the dusty, ramshackle landscape of shattered dreams with aplomb, framing the landscape beautifully yet with a sense of foreboding. From the opening shot of an empty highway with gathering storm clouds to the very last frame we're in no doubt that this is a movie where trouble and despair are the main characters. William Olvis only heightens the mood with his stunningly atmospheric acoustic soundtrack, lending it's understated tones to the overall tone of the movie and underlining the emotion with pinpoint accuracy.

Of a relatively small body of work, Dahl has at least three significant movies to his name; this, The Last Seduction and Unforgettable. Despite the general preference shown by most critics toward Seduction, I'll stick my neck out and say that Red Rock West is the better of the three, proving more accessible than either of the other two and arguably more efficient. Whereas a large part of Seduction's motivation was sex, this movie is sexy, pure and simple. It exudes mood and sultry danger from every pore, it's players trapped in an unrelenting game of fortune and chance from which there seems little hope of escape. Dangerous and seductive, Red Rock West is a firm Disko classic. Overlooked for far too long by a public far too easily distracted by big explosions and car chases, I demand you seek out this film and revel in it's glorious ambience.

From my base on Isla Apathetica I award this movie 5 out of 5 Disko Units.

John Dahl
Cast list:
Nicolas Cage (Michael)
Lara Flynn Boyle (Suzanne)
J.T. Walsh (Wayne)
Dennis Hopper (Lyle)