I just caught Red Rock West on TV and was very pleasantly surprised. The presence of Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper sometimes gives one flashbacks to their earlier David Lynch films, but there is more in common with his daughter’s recent film, Surveillance. While not quite as daring as Jennifer Lynch in his storytelling, John Dahl’s talent is his ability to deftly blend influences from seemingly incongruous sources into a new recipe that is perfectly balanced in its ingredients.
It begins like an update of A Fistful of Dollars and ends a lot like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but despite the anonymous Southwestern locale and William Olvis’s guitar score, the final concoction less Western than Noir.
Suspense is effectively sustained by Cage’s continued inability, despite his best efforts, to escape the small town of Red Rock. Like Griffin Dunne trying to get out of Soho in After Hours, Cage’s every attempt to get out of Dodge—at least four opportunities—is somehow thwarted. Unlike Scorsese’s dark comedy, however, there is little to laugh at in this nightmarish predicament. Imagine entering Chinatown at the beginning of the movie (or dream), instead of the end, and not being able to find your way out of it for the duration. Cage is not just a victim, however. In every instance it is his nagging sense of duty that drives him back to Red Rock.
It is a rare subdued performance from Cage, whose lack of eccentricities here serves him well as the everyman protagonist you identify with at every step of the way. His character and circumstances are so well defined that his every decision, even those of dubious judgement, cannot be faulted. At every crossroads you find yourself thinking, ‘I might have done the same in that situation.’
It never occurred to me until now, but the protagonists of film noir are endlessly fun to watch (and listen to) but almost impossible to invest in emotionally because they are too cool, too unphased by every incident, too stoic even while getting beat up. Those providing voice-over narration further distance themselves from both their experiences and the audience by appearing to be in control even when they’re not. In other words, their attitude and formal conventions are anathema to suspense.
Red Rock West is the first time I’ve ever seen a Noir plot infused with genuine suspense, thanks to Hitchcockian identification with a wrong-man-at-the-wrong-time protagonist. The result is 90 minutes of tension. That the whole shebang is held together by just four actors—Cage, Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, and the late J.T. Walsh—with only a few nameless extras is all the more impressive.