Analytical Neo-Noir Review: Red Rock West (1993)

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.

As noted in Martin and Porter’s "DVD and Video Guide 2005," the “seriocomic tone” of the film “emphasizes [main character] Cage’s plight in a story that will keep you guessing,” (205).

I’d seen the film many times in the 90’s but this time around, seeing it at least six-eight years since the last viewing, I noticed several influences with my always-evolving film literacy. Red Rock West 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. As Warren Buckland explains in "Teach Yourself Film Studies," Red Rock West “contrasts the wide open landscapes and small town community with the city,” although the majority of the film “takes place at night in dark, claustrophobic rooms,” (121). Buckland also notes that in addition to the obvious homage to Coen and Lynch, Hitchcock’s works serve as an important muse as Cage is the essential “wrong man” and nearly gets run over by Lyle’s car in a scene filmed the exact same way as the famous crop-dusting sequence from North By Northwest. Another similarity missed by Buckland is the use of the disability to serve as a symbol of Cage’s impotence a la James Stewart in Rear Window.

The temporary cast on his leg serves as a “sign of impotence and a portent of the bad luck ahead, his encased leg stretching out of his car is our first view of the character,” as noted by Foster Hirsch in "Detours and Lost Highways" (225).

“Dumb and sexy, Michael [Cage] is an easy mark for Noir,” as Hirsch explains (225), pointing out that he’s one of those from a long line of “neo-Noir victims who consistently misread the characters and situations that engulf them, [and they] turn out to be remarkably naive criminals,” (220).

Lara Flynn Boyle also fits type as the sexy fatales that serve as their downfall but “the vulnerable, wounded males, themselves [like Michael] exuding a potent sexual availability, are the stars and there’s something about these guys adrift on the open road and with no particular game plan, that makes them ripe for Noir picking… once they succumb,” (220).

The film is a treat to watch and serves as a wonderful study for aspiring screenwriters as we watch Michael time and time again doing things that viewers themselves think they might do (writing a note to authorities, etc.) but yet keep getting stuck in that dark, Noir town in the middle of nowhere.