Movie still of 1993's "Red Rock West".

Red Rock West

Small towns in the middle of nowhere are made for the movies.  To onlookers, a city like Red Rock would be a quaint checkpoint under the umbrella of a long-winded road trip, perfect for a pit stop and a quick bite to eat.  Stay there too long, though, and you’ll find yourself desperate for entertainment, money, love, and more.  Maybe that’s why the characters in Red Rock West are so cold-blooded.

 

When the film was first introduced to audiences during the Toronto Film Festival in 1993, it was immediately well-received, a neo-noir praised for its uncommon quality.  Distributors weren’t as smitten.  When its domestic rights were sold to Columbia Tri-

Star, a theatrical release was out of the question.  “The film doesn't fall neatly into any marketable category. A western film noir isn't something people can immediately spark to,” the head of the marketing department of Polygram declared.  So it was disregarded, branded as a cable and direct-to-video product.  It was shown on HBO seven times in the fall, but the small screen, after all, is certainly not a distinguished place for a movie to be shown, especially one that should be taken seriously.

 

But just as things could not have gotten any worse, they suddenly became better: When Bill Banning, the owner of San Francisco’s famous Roxie Cinema, saw Red Rock West for the first time, he disagreed with the distribution it was receiving.  Surely, the film had an audience.  And after a year of trying to secure the rights, his faith in the film paid off; it became such a box-office smash at the Roxie that it eventually was given a proper limited release, becoming an art-house favorite within a few weeks.

 

Normally, I wouldn’t go so deeply into the backstory of a film that came out more than 20 years ago, but as of 2015, Red Rock West still feels like a classic waiting in the wings, desperately wanting to be discovered by another Banning.  Even after all the ruckus it made throughout 1993-1994, it remains a hidden gem, deserving to sit on the same golden throne that Blood Simple currently lounges on.

 

A drifter in the same caliber as John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) finds himself in the city of Red Rock after failing to acquire a promising oilfield job.  When he stops by a local bar to wash away his sorrows, he is confronted by the owner, Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh), who mistakes him for a hitman he hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Michael is young and stupid, so when Wayne offers him an eye-grabbing stack of cash, he fails to correct him that he’s actually Michael Williams from the Navy, not Lyle from Dallas.

 

Being the nice guy that he is, he breaks into the Brown home, hoping to warn Suzanne that she’s in grave danger.  But when the real hitman (Dennis Hopper) shows up, Michael finds himself tangled in a net of lust and sin that can only end badly.  And it surely doesn’t help when he becomes romantically involved with Suzanne.

 

In the ashen throes of the film noir genre, there is almost always a recurring feeling of déjà vu; once you’ve seen a disciple with a drifter, a femme fatale, and a shady husband mixing it up, you’ve probably seen them all.  Film noir has hardly changed since its peak years (the 1940s and ‘50s), yet it has maintained a startling freshness in the same way comic books have.  You may have experienced every storyline possible, but the way those storylines are told, with hard-bitten cynicism and dark alleyway peril, have infinite allure.

 

Red Rock West is a consistent delicacy, a greatest hits album of film noir adventures.  Look at the way a cigarette dangles on Lara Flynn Boyle’s kissable lips.  Look at the way Dennis Hopper handles his gun, like a detective flying off the rails.  John Dahl is a director who knows his movies — after only a few minutes into the film do you get the sense that Murder, My Sweet and Raw Deal are not just B movies to him, but cookbooks, its recipes lingering in the cinematography and the writing.

 

Red Rock West isn’t without its issues: Music plays when a scene should be strictly silent, destroying any tension waiting to be had, and it would have been interesting if the film had explored Michael and Suzanne’s relationship as thickly as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson’s.  But two minor flaws can hardly deter the success of a film as striking as Red Rock West. Ignoring the disconcerting violence that plagued the majority of ‘90s independent neo-noirs, the film is deliciously old-fashioned and deliciously stylish. A-

 

Feb. 4, 2015