Nicolas Cage has been in a lot of films, a lot of rubbish films and a handful of good films. Among those good films is an early John Dahl feature called Red Rock West, a western-noir from 1993 that was somehow overlooked for a theatrical release in the US until a cinema owner tracked down the rights and screened it in his theatre a year later to great success.
Red Rock West was written by its director, John Dahl, and his brother Rick and was made in Arizona for a paltry budget of $7million. Columbia Tri-Star purchased the domestic distribution rights and, believing that the film ‘didn’t fall into any marketable categories’ (urgh), decided to release it straight to home video. Fortunately Bill Banning, the owner of the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, wasn’t quite so patronising of his audiences and acquired a cut for his screens where it broke box office records and expanded to a further 8 cinemas in the city.
Cage stars as Michael Williams, a drifter in desperate need of an income since being discharged from the Marines. He finds himself wandering into the town of Red Rock, Wyoming and inadvertently lands a job after answering to the name of ‘Lyle from Dallas’ when posed a question about his presence in town by the bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh). His eyes light up when he’s handed a wad of cash but then soon dim as he’s advised what the job entails; to kill his new employer’s wife (Lara Flynn Boyle).
By this point we’ve already twigged that Williams doesn’t have an ounce of bad in him (he decides against stealing money from an open till in an earlier scene) so it comes as no surprise that instead of killing the unknowing spouse, he warns her of the dastardly plot on her life and accepts a greater sum from her to reverse the deed. He then attempts to skip town knowing full well he isn’t going to kill anyone but is foiled and gets dragged deeper into the fray as the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) arrives to carry out the original plan and soon discovers Cage’s identity theft.
Even in this short synopsis I’ve omitted a few more twists and turns in the plot but only because there are so many and, believe me, they do work. Dahl’s writing and direction, albeit at a formative stage in his career, is assured and brimming with confidence; the story flows at a tidy pace and it looks good too considering the budget constraints.
Thematically Red Rock West often feels like a David Lynch film just without the abstract profundity, now this isn’t taking anything away from what Dahl has achieved, quite the opposite in fact as I found myself constantly comparing it favourably to Lynch’s canon; The labyrinthine plot, the country music soundtrack and the apple-pie protagonist are all found in Lynch’s body of work plus all three leads, Cage (Wild At Heart) , Hopper (Blue Velvet) and Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks) have all worked with him.
Talking of the three leads, they perform their roles with a style befitting the tone and writing of the piece which adds an extra layer of plausibility while the microcosm around these characters is slowly imploding on them. Cage has rarely been better as a good guy, Hopper channels Frank Booth without the depravity and Flynn Boyle kept me guessing all the way with a subtle, charming yet world worn performance. It should also be mentioned that this film gave us the acting debut of Dwight Yoakam (credited as ‘Truck Driver’) and while he was on set he who wrote the closing credits tune just because he could.
It seems incredible that a film as good as this can be discarded so easily because of an off day in the marketing department, still we have to be thankful for people like Banning for getting it the recognition it deserves, however slight. If you’ve not seen the film then I strongly urge you to source a copy at the earliest opportunity as Red Rock West is a buried 90s gem that needs to be unearthed, shined clean and displayed as that thing of rare beauty; a good Nic Cage film.
– Greg Foster