Red Rock West

RED ROCK WEST is one of my favorite neo-noirs, an ingeniously concocted tale with a simple, appealing hero who makes one wrong choice that snags him and he has to spend the rest of the movie trying to crawl his way out of an ever-tightening trap. He’s driving through the town of Red Rock, Wyoming when it goes down, so every time he gets out and then something else goes wrong we share his dismay at passing that god damn “Welcome to Red Rock” sign once more.

Well before all the thrilling twists and tense (but down to earth) set pieces, director John Dahl (THE LAST SEDUCTION, ROUNDERS, JOY RIDE) wins me over with an A+ overture of visual storytelling that establishes Michael (Nic Cage)’s hard times and integrity. We meet him waking up in his car on the side of a farm road, shaving, smelling the shirt he takes out of the trunk to make sure it’s not too bad, looking in the window reflection as he tucks it in, preparing to try to make a good impression. We also see his USMC tattoo, even before he starts doing shirtless one-arm push-ups. This will be relevant.

He’s broke and having trouble finding a job and has a bum knee brought back as a souvenir from Lebanon but he’s an honest man, not looking for any shortcuts. Not until he stops at a bar and his timing and Texas plates cause the owner, Wayne (the great J.T. Walsh, BREAKDOWN, EXECUTIVE DECISION) to mistake him for “Lyle from Dallas” who was supposed to be here last week for a job. Michael plays along, which seems like a promising trick for the few minutes before he realizes the job is to murder Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle, POLTERGEIST III). So it’s neither a line of work he’s interested in or the type where you can just put in your two weeks notice and be on your way.

Shit man, I still miss J.T. Walsh. That was a reliable bad guy actor right there. Look at these cold eyes:

And that’s when he thinks Michael is on his team. He had that rare quality of a guy who’s not necessarily a physical threat but who’s soaked through with such convincing malevolence that your heart would jump if he looked at you. Philip Seymour Hoffman could do that too. I don’t remember ever seeing Walsh play a normal, nice person. I bet he did that well too, but it’s hard for me to picture it.

Michael knows he stepped his cowboy boots into some shit here, but he attempts to execute the best plan he can come up with on the spot: warn the wife, write a letter to the sheriff, leave town with the money. But he’s thrown many curveballs and complications, including (but not limited to) (spoilers here) Suzanne trying to pay him double to kill Wayne, Wayne turning out to be the sheriff, and the guy he was pretending to be showing up late. And played by Dennis Hopper.

There was a time when Hopper seemed like an artifact from the post hippie era, as the director of EASY RIDER and the spaciest character in APOCALYPSE NOW. In 1990 he even played off that in the comedy FLASHBACK. I guess he sort of turned that image on its head with his nightmarish turn in BLUE VELVET, and man did that lead into a hell of a career resurgence in the ’90s, mainly playing villains. In the first half of the decade alone we’d see him in big budget movies SUPER MARIO BROS., SPEED and WATERWORLD, but also in THE INDIAN RUNNER, NAILS, BOILING POINT and TRUE ROMANCE.

Lyle from Dallas is another great Hopper character because he’s a genuine bastard who manages to be kinda lovable. There’s a point where he doesn’t know who Michael is and ends up giving him a ride, and taking him for a drink, and Michael keeps failing to come up with a convincing excuse to get away from him. Despite the great tension I also found myself thinking “I like this guy” and wishing they really could be buddies. Lyle instantly likes Michael when he finds out they’re both Marines, and he shows genuine sympathy when he realizes Michael was there when the barracks were truck bombed in Beirut. So that military tattoo has another purpose besides the noble old fashioned tradition of establishing why this guy is good with guns and fists and riding on top of moving vehicles.

For Cage, the tentpole type roles wouldn’t come until a little later in the decade. At this point he was well established as a weirdo character actor in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, RAISING ARIZONA, VAMPIRE’S KISS and WILD AT HEART, among others. This one is more of a straight leading man role – he must’ve channeled all of that year’s mega-energy into DEADFALL, possibly his most joyously over-the-top performance to date. But RED ROCK WEST establishes a skill set for playing stalwart good guys that would be of more use to Cage after his 1995 Oscar for LEAVING LAS VEGAS catapulted him into studio action movies.

Dwight Yoakam makes his movie debut as “Truck Driver,” which sounds like a nothing cameo for a famous country singer, but it’s actually a pretty impressive guest appearance with his cutting attitude toward this dude he finds on top of his truck trying to claim he’s not up to something. Yoakam would turn into a really good character actor in SLING BLADE, THE NEWTON BOYS, PANIC ROOM, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, etc.

I also want to mention the two deputies (Timothy Carhart and Dan Shor) who I first assumed were lackeys for Wayne, but it turns out they’re stand up guys. They’re these supporting characters who don’t seem very important but they’re actually putting the puzzle together in the background and trying to figure out what to do.

I’d been meaning to rewatch this one for years. I think this might’ve been my first time since the ’90s, and it absolutely lives up to my memories of it. I had forgotten many of the turns of events, and there was a point when I was listing to myself all the reasons why it’s even more similar to BLOOD SIMPLE thank I remembered: scary small town bar owner played by great, mean character actor hires somebody to kill his cheating wife, male protagonist in relationship with the wife, trying to steal money from the safe in his office, etc. Hell, Dahl even wrote it with his brother. And exactly as I was thinking this is when the story spins much further off the tracks and keeps things fresh.

To me the key to the appeal of this story is that Michael, during understandable desperation, violates his usual code, and that one instance sets off a catastrophic chain reaction. His essence can be summed up by the expression on his face as he eyes the open till in a seemingly abandoned gas station. He’s literally down to his last five dollars, he knows he could snatch that cash to get himself a little further down the road, and it clearly tortures him that the option is open to him, because he knows he will not take it.

At the beginning, after Michael has been rejected for the construction job he drove all the way out here for, his friend can’t understand why he told the foreman about his knee injury. “He would’ve found out eventually,” Michael says.

“Yeah, but you already would’ve had the job.”

That’s just not how Michael operates. But the next time it comes up, when Wayne mistakes him for Lyle, he finally tries out the other way, the easy way, the way that seemingly everybody else does it to get ahead, so why shouldn’t he? He’s tired of not getting the job, not getting the gas money, not getting shit because he’s so stubborn about doing the right thing. So just this one time, he abandons his inherent honesty.

Big mistake.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 1st, 2017 at 10:55 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Red Rock West”

  1. For the life of me I cannot explain why I’ve never seen this. Maybe I always get it confused with ROMEO IS BLEEDING, which I didn’t care for? Or maybe I assumed it was more of a femme fatale thing than Vern’s making it out to be? Femme Fatales are my least favorite old school pulp/noir trope. I just don’t find that it has any real resonance in the world. It can be funny to see some chump get dragged around by his boner by a broad who’s clearly smarter and tougher and more deserving to be the star of this story than he is, but too often I feel like it’s just male authors passing the buck on their protagonist’s own poor judgment by inventing this evil dragon lady sex sorceress. I’m sure they exist in the world but I’m not sure how big a problem it is. In any case, I can’t relate.

    But that’s not what this movie seems to be about anyway, and what it does seem to be about sounds great to me. I’ll check it out as soon as I can.

  2. “To me the key to the appeal of this story is that Michael, during understandable desperation, violates his usual code, and that one instance sets off a catastrophic chain reaction.” This is definitely a juicy plot point to hang a story on. I like the idea, too, that perhaps it’s not just that he’s bit in the ass for turning away from his morals. It could also be that a regular dirt bag would maybe be able to navigate through these waters better, but also, they might have had the instincts to not get caught up in it all to begin with.

    It makes me think of a roommate I had in college. Only in a more real world, and less homicidal way. My roommates and I would joke around with each other in an insulting, sarcastic way. We had a new girl move in who was the sweetest girl in the history of the world. She had never joked around like that before with her family and friends. The irony was when she tried joining in she had no idea of the limits and would always end up going to far and taking it from joking to mean. Luckily, I don’t think she’s ever been mixed up in a mistaken hit man situation.

  3. flyingguillotine

    May 1st, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    I think there’s a great triple feature to be had of RED ROCK WEST, THE LAST SEDUCTION and BLOOD SIMPLE.

  4. Must have seen this about a dozen times over the years. I heard this was made to go straight to cable in the US but it got such a good rap that they gave it a cinema release (or was that Dahl’s THE LAST SEDUCTION?). Such perfect simplicity in storytelling and characters. Cage making the right choice to stay low-voltage, with a few little flourishes here and there (Fuck Mexico!). Hopper and Walsh are excellent and yes, there uniqueness is sorely missed in cinema.

  5. Mr. Majestyk, it is a bit of a femme fatale movie, but the focus is spread pretty evenly among the four leads, not exclusively on the Lara Flynn Boyle’s character’s treachery. J.T. Walsh is great in this, in my opinion.

    I also have seen this a bunch of times over the years, and it’s always a pleasant hour and a half. Good acting from all the main players; I especially liked the subdued style of Cage’s acting as he establishes his character’s integrity and the problems resulting: the hint of mega acting, reined in to good effect, when he finally roars in frustration and punches the roof of his car after giving up the job he drove across the country to take up; his mildly pissed off expression as the gas station attendant asks him for his last $5.

    It always bothers me though that Michael might not be out of the woods as he rides off into the sunset (sunrise?) on his train. I doubt law enforcement would let a key player in such a bloodbath go so easily, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

  6. I don´t remember much about this. But I did love THE LAST SEDUCTION and one of those reason was that I had a crush on Linda Fiorentino.

  7. I don´t remember much about this. But I did love THE LAST SEDUCTION and one of those reason was that I had a crush on Linda Fiorentino.

  8. Why was Linda Fiorentino black-listed again? She can’t be that much of a Diva.

  9. Actually the story goes that she decided to quit acting, when they didn’t ask her back for MIB 2 and more or less gave her role to the talkin pug.

  10. Majestyk, you’re describing THE LAST SEDUCTION, but I really recommend that one too.

  11. I think you’re right. That’s the one I always confuse RED ROCK WEST with. And as I recall, I didn’t care for it.

    Femme fatales, man. Just not my thing. As soon as one shows up, you know exactly where the story is going and I start tuning out.

  12. I love that John Tesh Live at Red Rocks is one of Amazon’s suggestions. Tesh music is no joke.

  13. More and more, I think the 90s were a great decade for American cinema, buy they were also a great decade for film noir for whatever reason. There are so many great variations on the genre: The Usual Suspects, The Grifters, Lost Highway, Dark City, Bound, Shallow Grave, Barton Fink, Payback, and the Limey. Hell, by the end of the decade LA Confidential even wins best picture.

  14. What I appreciate about the state of the contemporary crime picture is that we’ve finally managed to leave behind all the superficial trappings of noir while maintaining its spirit. I’m more of a fan of the hard-boiled fiction that inspired noir cinema than I am noir cinema itself, and a lot of that is because the filmmakers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s just beat the hell out of all the visual tropes of the genre. Today’s crime filmmakers know that there don’t need to be dudes in fedoras smoking filterless cigarettes underneath slow-moving ceiling fans for it to be noir. Real criminals don’t wear shirts and ties and hang out at piano bars anymore. That shit was cool at the time because it had real resonance in the world. Raymond Chandler famously said that Dashiell Hammett, the father of the hard-boiled detective story, which gave birth to noir, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” It was a disavowal of British drawing room mysteries, but I now feel that noir-aping throwbacks have as little to do with actual crime and violence as your average Miss Marple mystery did back in the 30s. Films that try to ape noir stuff can easily come off as a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, an artificial, movie-movie reality that is the opposite of the dark, uncomfortable psychology of noir. I’m not knocking any of the films that RBatty mentioned, because they’re good films and not all of them do the thing I’m talking about, but I’m glad we’ve moved beyond period pastiche into something a little more down-to-earth and relatable.

  15. Rbatty: LA CONFIDENTIAL didn’t win best picture. It should’ve, in my opinion, but TITANIC won. It did get best screenplay.

  16. This movie and WILD AT HEART always bled into each other in my mind. I could never really remember which was which. Maybe it’s time to give them both a rewatch. In other early Cage related news I rewatched PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED for the first time in ages. It never occured to me how Cage acts like an alternate version of young Donald Trump in it during the 1960 part. The voice, the hair, the mannerisms it’s pretty fricken eerie.

  17. A genre definitely has to change in order to survive, and the femme fatale is definitely played out at this point. But only a handful of those noirs from the 40s and 50s used the exact tropes that are associated with the genre.

    The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, and Double Indemnity fit squarely in the genre. But even movies associated with classic noir like The Postman Always Rings Twice doesn’t exactly use all the noir tropes you might expect. Just the other night I rewatched The Third Man, which people often refer to as a noir, but with the exception of the visuals and the fact that there’s a mystery, it doesn’t really play like a classic film noir.

    Also, I don’t know why I thought LA Confidential won best picture. For some reason I thought it was the year after Titanic.

  18. DOUBLE INDEMNITY has one of the greatest theme songs ever. How that hasn’t been sampled into a rap beat yet is beyond me.

  19. Rbatty: I only remember because I really like LA CONFIDENTIAL and really don’t like TITANIC and am still festering to this day about it.

  20. I saw this movie last week and hadn’t realised how much U-TURN borrowed from it. U-TURN has great performances from a fantastic cast (Nolte especially), the strong filmatism of Oliver Stone and cinematography of Robert Richardson and a sardonic tone but it’s about half an hour too long, the twists and turns get stale as the movie goes on and it suffers from not having a single likable character in it. RED ROCK WEST by contrast has a much more sympathetic protagonist and an almost Lynchian menace and eeriness about it and is leaner and has less of a sense that characters are driven by plot.

    I’ve just seen that Vern has a review of U-TURN, time to check it out…

  21. Nic Cage IS…a rage zombie?

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