Bright Lights Film Journal

Notes on a Neo-Noir: John Dahl’s <em>Red Rock West</em>

“Cage’s Michael is a model of the terse, slightly wasted working-class guy who acts as a punching bag for malevolent Fate.”

Film noir persists long past its “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s because the forces that created it — the sense of futility generated by capitalism’s lopsided benefits package — continue to exist. But noir has moved from the dark decay of wet city streets to the bleak openness of the West. The American frontier is no longer a rich, vital land waiting for wagon trainloads of pioneers or plucky individuals to conquer it; now it’s a vast, dark, lonely prairie, more hopeless than hostile. Recent “neo-noirs” like True Romance have leavened this hopelessness with appropriate dollops of black humor, but the real standout in this style is John Dahl’s latest film, Red Rock West.

Red Rock West tells a familiar tale in fresh, unfamiliar ways. Here we have an innocent man drawn by circumstance into a netherworld of criminality. The innocent is regular guy Michael Williams (Nicholas Cage), who drives 1,200 miles from Texas to Wyoming for an oil drilling job, only to be rejected because of a knee injury. Left with only $5 and a gas-guzzling Cadillac, he manages to make it to the little town of Red Rock. There his passivity and near-muteness make local bar owner Wayne Brown (J. T. Walsh) mistake him for the hitman Brown has hired to kill his wife. Following the classical noir model, Michael’s acceptance of a $5000 retainer for this murder plunges him into a drama of betrayal and death, enacted by characters whose motives are obscure through most of the movie.

The film has an underlying mythic aspect — Michael is the unevolved hero who must undergo a moral test to achieve some kind of enlightenment. All the accompanying tests and temptations are present — loads of money, a trickster in the form of a criminal sheriff, a beautiful woman. But director Dahl (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Richard) adds droll comic touches that keep the myth from overwhelming the movie.

Red Rock West has some affinity with the work of David Lynch (even in using Lynch favorite Lara Flynn Boyle). There’s a similar exploitation of environment, the exposure of a festering underbelly in America’s aimless small towns. But Dahl doesn’t venture so far afield — he keeps the metaphysics in check, shaking up the audience without leveling them. Like Lynch, he has a strong command of the camera, letting it prowl over lonely highways and barren fields. William Orvis’ twangy guitar refrain adds a gorgeous melancholy texture.

The film is filled with visual pleasures, dazzling plot twists that generate serious tension, and first-rate performances. This is certainly Nicholas Cage’s best work to date. His Michael is a model of the terse, slightly wasted working class guy who acts as a punching bag for matevolent Fate. He’s the latest in a long line of noir drifters who once served society’s larger ends (his knee injury happened during the Vietnam War) only to find themselves shut out of its riches. Dennis Hopper moves through his typical psychopathic changes as the real hired gun. J. T. Walsh is brilliant as the shady bar owner; nominally a villain, the taut script and Walsh’s own subtle acting skills bring the character to sympathetic life. Lara Flynn Boyle (above) makes an entrancing femme fatale, if a bit less fully realized than the three men around her. The plot is filled with surprises, but it’s solidly anchored by the taciturn, sexy, sleepy-eyed Cage.

While many neo-noirs lack conviction and treat their material with a kind of dismissive smugness (Romeo Is Bleeding comes to mind here), Red Rock West shows a real affection for its lost characters. With only two features to his credit, John Dahl has established himself as a worthy interpreter of the inexhaustible noir.