On this week s edition of our Shouts From the Back Row podcast, we chronicled the career of Nicolas Cage, who has one of the most divisive and uneven filmographies of any actor in history. Cage has starred in his fair share of great movies and just as many horrible ones and, unfortunately for him, the latter examples have made up the most recent years of his career. But of course, any actor who’s had a career as varied as Nicolas Cage is bound to have some underrated gems in his filmography as well, and one of his most underappreciated performances occurred in a 1993 film noir movie that almost never saw the light of day. Last year, I wrote a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column on The Last Seduction, a 1994 film noir picture that was dumped to straight-to-cable because its distributors didn’t have much faith in it, but wound up garnering a theatrical release after drawing rave reviews from those who watched it. Because the film premiered on cable before playing in theaters, lead actress Linda Fiorentino was ineligible for an Academy Award nomination even though most critics agreed that her performance was a likely shoo-in to win. This would be a frustrating situation for any filmmaker, but for director John Dahl, it marked his SECOND film in a row to encounter this same problem! Like The Last Seduction, his previous film, Red Rock West, was a modernized neo-noir story that its distributors just did not get and also suffered the indignity of being dumped straight-to-cable. Strong word-of-mouth eventually allowed Red Rock West to attain a theatrical release, particularly after a San Francisco theater owner decided to screen the film in early 1994 and it wound up breaking box office records for the cinema. To this day, Red Rock West has still not been seen by a great deal of people, who have been deprived of a very clever and stylish thriller.
The majority of Red Rock West takes place in Red Rock, Wyoming, a desolate town in the middle of nowhere that is home to only about 1500 people. A drifter named Michael (Nicolas Cage) comes passing through town and stops at the local bar. Michael is a broke, unemployed ex-Marine who is just too damn honest to change his luck since he will not lie about an old war injury in order to secure a job, and refuses to steal even when the opportunity presents itself. However, when the bar owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), mistakes Michael for a guy named “Lyle from Dallas” and offers him a job, Michael is desperate enough to accept. However, it turns out the job is breaking into Wayne s house and murdering his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle)! Michael pretends to be the hitman and takes Wayne’s money, but his conscience forces him to find Suzanne and warn her that her husband is trying to kill her. However, Michael receives another surprise when Suzanne offers him double the money to kill Wayne! With all this new cash in his pocket, Michael decides to split town, but complications arise and Michael’s implicit need to do the right thing force him to return to Red Rock. Things get progressively worse for Michael when he discovers that Wayne the bar owner also doubles as the local town sheriff! And then things get ever MORE complicated when the real “Lyle from Dallas” (Dennis Hopper) finally shows up in Red Rock and is none-too-pleased to find out that a stranger has impersonated him and taken his job. Did I mention that most of this stuff only happens in the first half hour?
Red Rock West is a throwback to the oldest film noir story in the book: the seductive femme fatale who convinces an otherwise decent man to kill her husband, so that they can live together in so-called happiness with lots of money. It pays loving tribute to the film noir classics of the past, such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, while simultaneously lampooning their conventions. The new twist with the husband and wife both paying the protagonist to bump off each other is only the beginning. Now, anyone who has little tolerance for plot contrivances and coincidences may have a problem with Red Rock West. A lot of convenient things have to happen in order to move the plot along and its central storyline is highly implausible. However, the film does not take itself very seriously and is clearly having a lot of fun with its wild, twisty narrative. The filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of the idea that the hero keeps getting himself into trouble because he’s TOO good. A lot of film noir stories are driven by the hero causing his own downfall by making the conscious choice to do an amoral thing. On numerous occasions throughout Red Rock West, Michael could easily escape from his situation, but his need to always to do the decent, honourable thing only causes him to make things worse. In most movies, this might cause the viewer to yell at the screen and call the character an idiot. In Red Rock West, it’s actually quite hilarious. One of the film’s best running gags are the constant shots of Michael driving past the “Welcome to Red Rock” and “You Are Now Leaving Red Rock” signs to signify that, no matter how hard he tries, he just cannot escape this town. Red Rock West showcases Nicolas Cage at his very best, as he does a terrific job at making Michael into a likable and sympathetic character and generates a lot of laughs with how he conveys Michael’s immense frustration with his rotten luck.
While Cage does a great job at carrying Red Rock West along, he also gets solid support from Dennis Hopper, who delivers a classic Hopperian performance as the psychotic Lyle; J.T. Walsh, in another strong turn that made him one of our generation’s best character actors; and Lara Flynn Boyle, who always keeps her character’s ultimate motives a mystery. It’s very entertaining to watch the four main characters all try to manipulate and out-maneuver each other since they each have their own different agendas. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out and know where you stand with these people, the film manages to hit you with another twist or surprise. If the storyline for Red Rock West sounds familiar, that’s probably be because it was copied by the Oliver Stone film, U-Turn, three years later, which cast Sean Penn as the hard-luck drifter, and Nick Nolte and Jennifer Lopez as the husband and wife who each hire him to kill the other one. Being an Oliver Stone film, U-Turn had far more excess and over-the-top visuals, but they overwhelmed the story and the end result was less effective than Red Rock West. While Red Rock West is a modernized film noir story, it could also be described as a “western noir”. The idea of a drifter entering a desolate desert town and becoming involved in a dangerous situation with the locals is straight out of a western, making this a very unique crossover between the two genres. Unfortunately, this is probably one of the reasons why Red Rock West never got the theatrical release it deserved, as one of its distributors reportedly complained about the film not falling neatly into any marketable category. However, the film remains a very entertaining effort for those who are fans of both the film noir and western genres, and those who are fans of the Coen brothers are bound to love it as well. And If you’re a Nicolas Cage fan who is discouraged by his recent output of stinkers, you owe it to yourself to check out one of his most underappreciated performances in one of his most underappreciated films.