Red Rock West

Red Rock West (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael (Nicolas Cage) has driven all the way from Texas to Wyoming because a friend (Craig Reay) has promised that there is a construction job waiting for him. If there is anything we learn about Michael in under five minutes, it is his seemingly unwavering honesty. First, while filling out a job application, a mere formality, he mentions his bad leg. This inevitably costs him the job. Second, when there is no one minding the desk at a gas station, leaving the cash register wide open, although he is very short on cash, he does not purloin the money like a petty criminal.

However, when Wayne (J.T. Walsh), a pub owner, has mistaken Michael for “Lyle from Dallas” and mentions a vague contract job, our protagonist goes along for a ride. After all, how dangerous can a pub owner be? He is informed that his assignment involves killing Wayne’s wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), because she has been unfaithful. Suddenly, Michael is involved—whether he wants to be or not.

Written by John Dahl and Rick Dahl, “Red Rock West” begins like a wild wire, its damaged end emitting blinding and fatal sparks at irregular intervals. It embraces a certain level of excitement in terms of how one lie can make a man’s life tortuously complicated. Cage’s character is an apotheosis of a man constantly pushed toward the edge. When he is not struggling for money, he is fighting for his life. His weary voice serves as a great contrast to his brisk responses when dangerous situations face him.

I admired the film’s stylish simplicity. It works as a western noir in that the screenplay uses the environment, from the sun-soaked desert roads, old men wearing tough leather boots, to dilapidated abandoned buildings, as a backdrop for double- and triple-crosses. Because so many things are happening at the same time, at times I was blinded by some of the characters’ true motivations. I guess, in a way, I wanted to trust some of them so I could figure out the true villain, or villains, in the story.

Without a doubt, the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) is not the one to root for. He works for no one but himself. If he detects the scent of money, he follows its trail like a detection dog. While Fake Lyle expresses his emotions inward, Real Lyle embodies the opposite. Neither are invincible. Hero or villain, both are capable of being hurt, knocked down, and knocked out.

When the two scuffle, the lack of a resounding score is noticeable. Instead, the ominous beats present throughout the rest of the picture blanket the fight. I found it to be eerily effective because not only does it not glorify violence, it gives the audience the impression that things can go very wrong at any second. That bad leg is just too much of a liability.

“Red Rock West,” directed by John Dahl, knows how to build suspense without losing track of what makes each character tick. Rarely do I encounter a protagonist where I would constantly wish for him to do the wrong thing so he can finally have a chance to extricate himself from several complicated situations. The fact that he does not, unless absolutely necessary, makes us wish harder that he will have a happy ending.

2 replies »

  1. I think this is a really underrated film and a great throwback to the noir era. Hopper is very well cast as the nasty killer, and Cage plays the innocent guy with a mistaken identity with more subtlety than usual. Glad you checked it out!

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