(director/writer: John Dahl; screenwriter: Rick Dahl; cinematographer: Marc Reshovsky; editor: Scott Chestnut; cast: Nicolas Cage (Michael), Dennis Hopper (Lyle from Dallas), Lara Flynn Boyle (Suzanne), J.T. Walsh (Wayne), Craig Reay (Jim), Vance Johnson (Mr. Johnson), Dale Gibson (Kurt), Dan Shor (Deputy Bowman); Runtime: 98; Polygram Release; 1992)

A nifty postmodern cowboy-noir and black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A nifty postmodern cowboy-noir and black comedy filmed in a drab Technicolor that seems appropriate for this film, as the colorization is not ostentatious and thereby makes the zany characters appear more real. The story is aimed at striking your funny bone and getting you dizzy in following all the plot twists. It features the familiar noir clichés of the femme fatale and an innocent man trapped in the world of criminals. It is written by the Dahl brothers and directed with tongue-in-cheek humor by John Dahl and despite the clichés, the film feels original.

“Red Rock West” was first released as a video before it had its theatrical release in a San Francisco theater, where it proved to be a hit. That got it a limited run across big market city theaters. It’s the type of film that seems to be best-suited for video, where it made its biggest splash.

Michael (Cage) is one lucky s.o.b to get out of Vietnam alive with only a bum leg, when his marine outfit was trapped in a bombed building. But he doesn’t seem too lucky now, as he comes from Texas to Wyoming for an oil rigger’s job his friend said was available. He’s turned down because he is decent enough to own up to his bum leg on his job application. He finds himself drifting into Red Rock, on a tip from a local that there might be work there. At the local bar he orders coffee and the bartender, Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh), noticing the Caddy he drives and the Texas license plates, says you must be Lyle from Texas and slides over five grand and says the other half of the money will be delivered when you finish the job of killing my wife Suzanne (Lara). Now most people who are not completely straight and are as broke as Michael and have a little larceny in their heart, would have just skipped town with the dough and laughed all the way to Las Vegas. But not our hero…who is neither straight nor crooked, just a guy who gets into tight spots and tries to do what is right. And to him, that means mailing an anonymous letter to the sheriff about the incident and going out to the ranch to warn Suzanne. She takes it like a real trooper and offers him double that to kill her husband.

Michael figures he did all he can here and loads up with junk food and beer and heads out of Red Rock past the ‘Welcome to Red Rock’ sign, which becomes the film’s running gag as he will pass that sign numerous times in his inability to get out of town. It’s a rainy night and he smashes into a man on the road who is trying to flag him down. Not able to leave him by the road, he brings him into the hospital where it turns out the man is Suzanne’s lover and he has two bullets in his stomach. The other twist is that the town’s sheriff is none other than Wayne. When Wayne sees him at the hospital, he arrests him and takes him down a back road where he unsuccessfully tries to kill him. When Michael escapes, he is picked up by the real Lyle. All this happens in the first reel.

From that point on the plot gets more serpentine, the characters become more loopy and dangerous, and do-gooder Michael comes up against three desperate snakelike characters who are willing to do anything to get their hands on a half million dollars that the crooked sheriff has hidden away. It’s all about the money, with the psycho-killerDennis Hopper getting more vicious the more insecure he gets. He starts ranting that Cage thinks that he is better man than him. Lara proves to be as cold-blooded and as immoral as any femme fatale in the movies could be; while J.T. is slimy and calculating.

“Red Rock West” is a playful and offbeat thriller, whose only sense it makes is nonsense. But it is highly entertaining, while the film itself is well executed and the acting and dead-pan humor is effective. So it hardly matters that this murky story is not plausible and certainly not cerebral. It has received cult status, which means it is likely to pop up on late night cable at any time in the future.

Red Rock West Poster