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Red Rock West

Red Rock West - 1993

Directed by John Dahl

Written by John Dahl & Rick Dahl

Starring Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, Timothy Carhart & J. T. Walsh

Red Rock West is a real throwback to the film noir classics of old - it has all of the elements working in much the same way. The capable, lone wolf stranger from out of town that's out of his depth, the femme fatale who is both alluring and trouble, lots of money, a hit man, mariticide, a hidden treasure and a plot that is unraveled one piece at a time before some final revelations make it all sensible and understandable. Characters aren't who they seem to be, and then after we're surprised by learning who they really are, there's still huge rug-pulls as to who they really, really are. It has something of a Western flavour to it as well, and includes many a country & western song on it's soundtrack - the end credits playing Dwight Yoakam semi-hit "1,000 Miles from Nowhere", while also having him play a small part in the film - his first appearance in a feature.

Nicolas Cage plays Michael Williams as a nice guy with a hangdog-like manner - he's looking for work, but refuses to hide the fact he has an injured leg from prospective employers. He's just that honest - and Dahl gives him the opportunity of taking someone's money when he's desperate for cash, which he duly doesn't do. Character established - nice, honest, dependable and always does the right thing, our Michael. When he gets to the town of Red Rock, he meets Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) - a bar owner who thinks Michael is actually "Lyle" from Texas (where Michael comes from) and assumes he's here to pull off the hit Wayne has taken out on his wife. $5000 - which is tempting to someone who has just spent his last $5 on the gas to get there, so he pretends he is indeed Lyle. Of course, he's about to become embroiled in a deadly situation. Michael goes to warn Wayne's wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) that her husband wants her dead - and Suzanne offers Michael double the money to kill Wayne.

Heading into this situation is the real hitman, played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper has this annoying brashness he gives the character - less menace than sheer objectionable unpleasantness. He was great in the mid-80s, and I loved him in Blue Velvet, but mid-90s Hopper didn't have the power and complexity to make Lyle the dark menace he should have been. I thought it was this film's weakest link - the Hopper performance. He's coasting on his name alone. Lara Flynn Boyle doesn't have what Barbara Stanwyck or Rita Hayworth had either - I didn't buy the fact that she could seduce Michael into doing incredibly stupid things, considering the chemistry between the two characters was negligible. Cage is great though - and he's the one that manages to keep Red Rock West afloat, along with J.T. Walsh, who definitely has the menace that Hopper's Lyle is desperately missing.

Red Rock West's best feature though, is it's screenplay - the credit for which is shared between John and Rick Dahl. Wonderfully paced, and like a good downhill skier, it knows exactly when to twist and turn. Situations keep developing, fast enough for the viewer to be often caught by surprise. The locations, in Montana along with Willcox, Sonoita and Elgin, Arizona, give the film a Western feel - the vastness swallowing up our collection of desperados and wrongdoers (Michael excepted of course) as the dust threatens to do the same. The soundtrack of country and western songs reinforce that earthy feel to proceedings, with Johnny Cash, Shania Twain, Kentucky Headhunters and Toby Keith joining Dwight Yoakam on the roster of artists who at times burst forth and remind us of where we are.

I had fun watching Red Rock West - I was genuinely surprised by the events that transpired as they transpired, and Nicolas Cage probably doesn't get enough credit for simply being a great actor - instead recognized more for giving over-the-top, crazed performances. He really anchored this neo-noir thriller, and without him it wouldn't nearly have been as good. It's a film that gets it's honest, working-class protagonist lost in the wild expanses of the United States, and snagged on deadly conspiracies while caught up with murderous characters. It doesn't impose itself with it's hour and a half runtime, and is very economical. Turns out Red Rock is a damned hard place to leave once you find yourself there - for all manner of reasons. I'm not too keen on going there myself - it's a pretty common name for a town out in the American expanses, so I'm just scratching them all off my list.