Cinématographe: Red Rock West (1993) – Reviewed

Images courtesy of Cinématographe

The second film of Rounders and Joy Ride director John Dahl Red Rock West, recently restored by Cinématographe in 4K from the film’s 35mm interpositive and released through their newly formed boutique label coming out of Vinegar Syndrome, is perhaps the most distinctively Lynchian neo-noir of the 1990s not actually written or directed by David Lynch.  Co-starring not one but three key Lynch players with Nicolas Cage, Lara Flynn Boyle and Dennis Hopper and co-produced by Wild at Heart financiers Steve Golin and Sigurjon Sighvatsson, the film was an unusual sleeper hit in that it sold out frequently at smaller venues in New York and San Francisco while also became a hot VHS and cable television renter.  Already sold out in its deluxe limited-edition package, the film represents one of Cage’s more subdued neo-noirs that keeps him from flying off the handle in a tense twisty-turner where all the players and chips are at stake in this taut little midwestern free-for-all. 

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) drifts through the Wyoming oilfields living out of his car after being discharged from the military and a job offer falls through due to a preexisting combat injury.  Happening into rural ghost town Red Rock seeking other work, he saunters into a bar managed by a bartender named Wayne (J.T. Walsh) who picks up on Michael’s rootlessness and assumes he is the hitman “Lyle from Dallas” he hired to kill his wealthy wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) which Michael hastily goes along with.  After meeting Suzanne firsthand and deciding to back out but keep the downpayment, he crosses paths with the actual Lyle (Dennis Hopper in classic over-the-top Frank form), setting off a domino rally of double-crossings and unexpected revelations where no one is really who they seem.

Written and directed by John Dahl with co-writer Rick Dahl, this distinctly 1990s chunk of midwestern American neo-noir came out shortly after Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and absolutely feels spoken of the same breath without the hyperactive surrealism of either Lynch effort.  A movie with Nicolas Cage fulfilling his newly earned cowboy boots, jean jacket and button-down shirt, the film’s antiheroic drifter suits Cage perfectly who manages to inject subtlety and nuance into a role that could’ve otherwise scaled a mountaintop.  Dennis Hopper, as always, is certifiable and threatening and feels like he stepped right off of the set of Blue Velvet.  J.T. Walsh, an always stellar character actor, really comes into his own here as a mercurial adversary with greater criminal ambitions ahead than a simple hit.  And of course Lara Flynn Boyle, hot off of Twin Peaks, imbues the film’s mysterious damsel in distress ala Vertigo with a dangerous edge where she plays the victim but could draw a gun in the blink of an eye.

Lensed in picturesque if not rustic 1.85:1 widescreen by The Grifters cameraman Marc Reshovsky whose recurring image of the titular Red Rock West town sign becomes almost like Soho for Paul Hackett in After Hours as a town our hero can’t seem to leave, the film looks earthy before wading within smoky interiors of bars and seedy hotels.  The soundtrack by late Kill Me Again composer William Olvis is an appropriately neo-noir oriented score with notes of Angelo Badalamenti pulsating through its neon-drenched veins.  The look and feel of the shadowy, often smokey set pieces, feel somewhere between the open rocky terrain of Wild at Heart with the distinctly small-town American feel of Gas Food Lodging.

A movie which, like John Dahl’s other earlier cinematic efforts, crept unto cable television before getting renewed reevaluation and interest through theatrical screenings done later, Red Rock West is a solid little update on the American film noir that feels like it could coexist within Lynch’s kindred universes but winds up finding its own unique footing.  With the town itself becoming a fifth character over time as the film’s hero tries to evade it only to be drawn right back into its inescapable tractor beam, the mean and mad world of these scheming double-crossing miscreants is bumpy, rugged and harsh while the tropes of classic noir have evolved beautifully into the present day.  Cage, Walsh, Boyle and Hopper are all solid in the piece which helped usher in John Dahl’s career as one of the most flavorful purveyors of American midwestern crime fiction whose works are only now getting their fair handshake with modern day cinephiles. 

--Andrew Kotwicki