This piece was originally Published by Brian Sauer on his blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks as part of the Underrated Thrillers series by author Jen Johans in the fall of 2014. It was adapted from an earlier piece Johans had penned and posted in 2007 here on Film Intuition.
Inspired by neo-Noir masters David Lynch and the Coens, writer/director John Dahl proved he could handle Noir terrain in his own right with the excellent Red Rock West.
The film finds wounded war veteran Michael (Nicolas Cage) in the middle of the western desert looking for work that keeps eluding him because of his bad leg and his honesty about it in interviews.
When he’s mistaken for someone else, Cage agrees to a job from bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) before realizing that the man thinks he’s the hit man he’s hired to kill his young, sexy, unfaithful wife played by Lara Flynn Boyle.
Boyle gives Cage even more money to get Wayne out of the picture and he figures he’ll take the money and leave town before a number of ridiculous but believable events make it impossible for him to leave Red Rock, such as the arrival of the real hit man played by the always over-the-top but affable Dennis Hopper.
Like Michael, Hopper’s Lyle is a former veteran of the war and there are some minor political implications throughout the work along with excellent uses of the environment for irony.
A Hitchcockian wrong man thriller, Dahl has fun with this influence in a nod to North By Northwest that finds Michael nearly run over by a car similar to Cary Grant’s battle with the crop duster.
Red Rock West also pays tribute to Rear Window given the film’s treatment of the disability to serve as a symbol of Cage’s “impotence” as a man without power a la James Stewart in Window.
A treat to watch, the film-literate script penned by John and his brother Rick Dahl has a blast taking archetypes like Boyle’s femme fatale, Cage’s unlucky mark, and Hopper’s thuggish villain and making them vastly more complex as each evolves in a multitude of ways from one act to the next.
Likewise, it serves as wonderful study for aspiring screenwriters as we watch our refreshingly relatable main character Michael time and time again doing things that viewers themselves think they might do (like writing a note to authorities, etc.) but yet keep getting stuck in that dark, Noir town in the middle of nowhere.
Poorly handled in its initial release by producers unsure if a western Noir would ever catch on, the film (which played on cable before being released overseas) happened to strike a chord with the right viewer at the right time, bringing it to the Toronto International Film Festival where another fan picked up the baton to serve as its champion.
Released in a few theaters in San Francisco where it broke records, Red Rock West became a critical and word-of-mouth hit just weeks before it was slated for its original video release, forever making it an underrated treasure worthy of cult status as one of Cage’s best pre-Oscar performances and John Dahl’s best film.
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