Tag: john dahl

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.

The Last Seduction

The Last Seduction (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) was slapped by her husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), for calling him stupid. So, while he was in the shower, Bridget took Clay’s drug money of over five hundred thousand dollars, left New York City, changed her name to Wendy, and settled in a small town. There, she met Mike (Peter Berg), a man who was recently divorced, in a bar. Convinced that the repercussions of her recent thievery was far from over, Wendy figured that she could use Mike to get away with the money once and for all. Written by Steve Barancik and directed by John Dahl, “The Last Seduction” was a sexy, smart, and fast-paced neo-noir with an edgy main character. The film made all the men in the film look completely idiotic which had very amusing results. I didn’t think it was unfair because how many times have movies made women look like complete bimbos? It was easy to label Wendy as “evil” because she was not above committing murder to get what she wanted. I argue that if she was a man who wore dark shades and a black suit when she schemed, she would be considered as “cool.” I perceived her as a survivor with a sharp tongue. In some ways, she reminded me of myself. When Wendy met Mike and she bluntly told him that she wasn’t interested, he bragged that she was missing out because he was as hung as a horse. Instead of allowing the conversation to end, she called him over and insisted that he showed her what he was so proud of. I had a laugh because I would have done the same. She was the kind of person who liked to push the envelope and, if necessary, make someone question his self-confidence. She had her own way of getting to know a person. The dark comedy worked because two completely opposite characters took center stage. Mike liked to discuss sensitive things like feelings and have deep conversations. Wendy just wouldn’t have it. It wasn’t like she didn’t want anyone to know her. She was just rarely in the mood. When Mike confessed that he felt like a sex object, Bridget suggested that he lived it up. What I admired most about the movie was the balance between the twisted relationship and the stolen money. Fiorentino’s fiery performance allowed the two spheres to converge without resulting to painful typicalities like a shootout in the end or someone drastically changing the way he or she saw the world. In reality, people don’t really change all that much despite personal crises. The screenplay was focused in naturally allowing the characters’ behaviors to speak for themselves. I relished “The Last Seduction” because it was stripped of sentimentality. Its bravado in turning gender roles on its head was both charming and unexpectedly hilarious.


Kalifornia (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.