The hero of Red Rock West--played, excellently, by Nicolas Cage--is an out-of-work ex-Marine. In the first few scenes, we are shown what a decent, standup guy he is. He refuses a buddy's offer of a loan. And although he's penniless and stuck in the middle of nowhere, he resists the temptation of an easy theft. So we see that there are more important things to him than money. When he drifts into the tiny, desolate Wyoming town of the title, he quickly comes to realize what a rare specimen this trait makes him. He goes into the town watering hole, and the manager (J.T. Walsh) asks him if he's Lyle from Dallas, come about the job. Desperate for work, Cage says he is, but after a few minutes of orientation, he realizes the "the job" in question is bumping off the barkeep's wife. Standup guy that he is, Cage goes and warns the gorgeous wife (Lara Flynn Boyle), who immediately offers to up the hubby's price if Cage will kill him, instead. Cage declines, drops a note explaining the situation to the town sheriff and heads for the city limits. That, of course, is only the beginning of the plot's tapestry of twists. The first of the two elements that separate Red Rock West from most of the dozens of other dreary efforts to reinvent B-movie noir of the last few years is that the serpentine plot turns on a very funny running gag--every time Cage makes it a few hundred yards out of town, circumstances keep carrying him back. The second distinction is the acting, especially that of Cage and of the peerless Dennis Hopper as, you guessed it, the real Lyle from Dallas, who finally shows up.
Cage has been trying to lighten up in his more recent roles (Guarding Tess, It Could Happen to You), with some fairly pleasant results. But he's still best at the sort of comically hangdog good guys he has played in Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona and now Red Rock West--it's he, not Kevin Costner, who rightly deserves to inherit Gary Cooper's mantle of laconic heroism.
Hopper's latter-day success as a heavy is largely because of his comic skills. He's brilliant at making bluff geniality terrifying. His Lyle is a more playful piece of villainy than his classic turn as Frank in Blue Velvet, which mixed a deep, obsessional horror with the black comedy. Lyle is a menace of simpler motivation--money. His friendly manner toward his victims is only half-feigned. As for the rest of the small cast, Boyle is lovely and competent, and little more is required of her. Walsh is his usual scurvy self, and Dwight Yoakam has an amusing, effective cameo as a truck driver.
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As it consists of the flurry of double-crosses and bloody fights customary to the genre, the final fifth or so of Red Rock West is a slight letdown. Director John Dahl (who co-wrote the script with his brother Rick Dahl) handles even these scenes with tension and snappy efficiency, but since the film has been so deft and inventive and wryly sinister until then, one hoped for a more imaginative payoff. Still, this amounts to criticizing an unusually good thriller for not being a great one.
I first saw, and loved, Red Rock West last fall at the Equinox Film Festival at Herberger Theater Center. It was only a matter of weeks later that I noticed it was playing late at night on premium cable TV. The film never got a wide theatrical release, but it seems, now, to be finding an audience on the art-house circuit. Deservedly--it has the makings of a minor classic.