"You are now leaving Red Rock". This road sign taunts Michael (Nicolas Cage) every time he passes it, for it seems that the last thing he can ever manage to do is leave the town of Red Rock once and for all.
Michael is the film noir drifter par excellence: like the hapless hero in the classic Detour (1945) by Edgar Ulmer, he keeps going around and around in a vicious circle, the victim of an especially malign fate.
Red Rock West is the one of the best '90s films to reinvestigate the noir narratives of the '40s. It is not a languorous exercise in atmosphere and style like Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot (1990), nor an attempt at a jazzy and convoluted modernisation of the genre like the Coen brothers' Blood Simple (1984).
John Dahl's film (written with his brother Rick) focuses its energy on the steady, cumulative unfolding of a complex plot – and what a terrific plot it is.
Michael is mistaken by the town sheriff Wayne (J.T. Walsh) as a hitman who has arrived to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). Michael takes his money and promptly goes to warn Suzanne of the plot, taking her money in turn to go and kill Wayne. Then Michael makes a dash for it, but runs over Suzanne's lover on the road. And the real hitman, Lyle (Dennis Hopper), is bound to show up at just the wrong moment.
The story is full of wonderful symmetries, ironies and clinches. Michael tries hard to be a good guy amidst all this moral and emotional confusion, but hardly makes it to first base – and Cage is terrific at conveying the character's frazzled determination.
All the actors are superbly used: Hopper's demented mannerisms are chillingly restrained for a change, and Boyle's vacuous good looks are entirely expressive in context.
After so many tricksy and overly self-conscious attempts at updating and revamping the film noir genre, here is one that dispenses with both sloppy nostalgia and ultra cool posturing. The themes are the familiar ones of the genre – betrayal, amorality, deadly desire – but director Dahl keeps them almost in the background, as simple givens of the genre.
His discreet gambit works: Red Rock West is a very impressive exercise.
MORE Dahl: Unforgettable
© Adrian Martin April 1994