Red Rock West

Red Rock West

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The synopsis doesn’t do justice to the multiple twists and turns in Dahl’s superb blending of the noir and Western genres. But to give away too much would be to ruin the pleasure for first-time viewers of a film where you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next – or whether any of the main characters is quite who they seem.

In only his second feature (co-written with his brotehr Nick) Dahl takes the stock characters of classic noir – the drifter with a good heart but not too much upstairs, the femme fatale, the rich overlord, the implacable assassin – and dumps them in the vastness of the American West, leaving them to turn on each other in a series of plot developments ingenious enough to keep even the most seasoned whodunnit veteran guessing but just believable enough to keep the whole edifice from crashing down under the weight of its essential implausibility.

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And, like al the best noirs, he not only keeps the tension dialled up to 11 but creates a world where morality is an irrelevance at best and a mortal danger at worst; where all the characters are damaged and desperate and escaping with a modicum of self-respect – not to mention your life – is the best you can hope for.

Nicolas Cage is the perfect ‘hero’ for such a fable – at a stage in his career before Leaving Las Vegas and Con Air simultaneously made him a blockbuster action hero and the go-to-guy for those occasions when an ‘intense’ or ‘eccentric’ (or both) performance is what’s required, he still radiates the youthful energy, slightly gormless charm and propensity for sudden violence that made his star turn in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart such a stand-out.

He plays Michael, a recently-discharged Marine with some experience on the Texas oil rigs trying to find similar work in Wyoming. He drifts into the one-bar town of Red Rock where the barman (JT Walsh) catches sight of his number plates and mistakes him for ‘Lyle from Texas’ – a hitman he’s hired to murder his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).

Michael initially plays along, desperate for the money. But after pocketing it, he warns Suzanne and attempts to move on. Noir’s rarely that simple, though, and Michael finds himself back in Red Rock after a series of Kafkaesque twists in which every action has an unexpected consequence and assumptions of characters’ identity are constantly undermined.

You’ll be sharing his sense of nightmarish confusion and rooting for him as he attempts to get out of town with his hide and his sanity intact. But matters are complicated by the arrival of the real hitman (Dennis Hopper) and Michael’s growing attraction to Suzanne – with its attendant temptations to embrace the dark side...

Dahl keeps the suspense ratcheted up throughout, but also creates an atmosphere of doubt and duplicity, where the characters worldview is as basic and desolate as the landscape around them – make some money, stay one step ahead of the law and get rid of anything that stands in your way. Even characters like Michael, who try to stay on the straight and narrow, are constantly reminded of their failings and disappointments. Essentially it’s a country and western song brought to life, an impression enhanced by the classy, rootsy soundtrack and a memorable cameo from singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam as an ornery trucker.

He’s equally well-served by the other members of the doomed quartet. Hopper, well into his career reinvigoration, has a whale of a time as the Stetson-wearing assassin, constantly trying to scoop the entire pot and get rid of all the other contenders, veering from good ol’ boy bonhomie to remorseless cruelty in a heartbeat.

Boyle, fresh from Twin Peaks, can’t quite match up to the leading ladies of classic noir but she has a jolly good go; radiating smouldering sex appeal, amoral intelligence and an acute awareness of how easy it is to manipulate men, it’s no wonder Cage falls under her spell but equally clear that he’ll only be able to stay with her by sacrificing more than his freedom. Walsh has the least showy role, but brings a quiet, unnerving deliberation to the character of the jealous husband who (more than anyone else, in the end) has a secret life...

It climaxes in a fog-shrouded graveyard that the old stagers would have been proud of, with a Mexican stand-off that’s the equal of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Reservoir Dogs. It never transcends genre in the way that a true classic like Touch of Evil (with which it shares more than a strand of DNA) does but as a gritty, intricate thriller it more than passes muster. Stick a Johnny Cash CD on, fix yourself a JD and a Bud, then settle down for some good, thoroughly unclean fun.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2011
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Red Rock West packshot
A drifter is mistaken for a hitman and falls in love with the woman he’s supposed to kill...
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Director: John Dahl

Writer: John Dahl, Rick Dahl

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, JT Walsh

Year: 1993

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

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SSFF 2011

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If you like this, try:

Blood Simple
Blue Velvet
Wild At Heart