The Western genre exists mostly in the past, in desolate, rural landscapes populated by hardscrabble expansionist settlers whose lives are frequently disrupted by the Civil War or battles with the indigenous Native Americans. Film noir, in comparison, sees the rural world post-expansion and considers it uncorrupted, almost pure, an alternative to the decaying urban state that noir necessarily lives in. These two genres often intersect, such as in the hardboiled pulp novels of Jim Thompson, who knew the tiny, isolated towns of the West could be just as rotten under the surface as their metropolitan counterparts. The rain-soaked glow of neon in the dead of night means the same thing in tiny Red Rock, Wyoming as it does in a crowded, seedy New York neighborhood.
So, too, do Western and noir heroes share many of the same qualities: a code of honor, voluntary loneliness, a desire to correct the wrongs of the past. The protagonists of these genres have often experienced the devastation of war first hand. They are men who know the same luck that allowed them to survive past battles would eventually run out. And Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) is indeed a man whose luck has run out. A former Marine seriously injured in the attack on the Beirut embassy in 1983, Michael has traveled as far as his money and his aging car can take him in hopes of securing work at a Wyoming oil rig. Desperation is not enough to make the honest Michael lie about his leg injury to get the job, thus he finds himself essentially stranded in the small town of Red Rock with five bucks and little else. In what seems like a moment of serendipity, Michael is mistaken by bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) as a man named Lyle from Dallas, who had been hired sight unseen for an unspecified job. Sensing his integrity has not served him well thus far, Michael pretends to be Lyle to get the gig. Immediately, the repercussions of his lie become clear: Lyle was a hitman hired to kill Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).
Red Rock West embraces the clichés of both Westerns and film noirs, but without the condescending wink-and-nudge attitude found in many modern films. In Red Rock West, the use of cliché is an implied agreement with the audience, an understanding that this is not the result of literary laziness but an acknowledgement that everyone will recognize certain conventions and accept that they exist within the film’s universe. That’s not to say Red Rock West doesn’t have fun with the clichés. Thunderclaps punctuate the hero’s mistakes, emotions are signalled by the consumption of hard liquor, the good guy drives a white car and the bad guy a black one. It’s obvious and occasionally humorous, but never campy.
After his momentary lapse of honesty, Michael tries to go back to doing the right thing. He warns Suzanne that she is in danger, but instead of being grateful or even very frightened, Suzanne makes a counteroffer in hopes Michael will kill Wayne for her. Taking the money but never intending to make the hit, Michael scribbles a quick note for the Red Rock sheriff to investigate the situation and tries to leave the town behind. But the Red Rock might as well be called Fate, and Michael cannot escape Fate. It is inevitable that Michael quickly finds himself seduced by Suzanne and pursued by both Wayne and the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper). Lyle is also an ex-Marine, also from Texas, and in a way he is also a glimpse into Michael’s potential future, the one he would have had if he’d taken the money and made the hit, eventually becoming a second-generation Lyle.
Hopper once again gets an opportunity to unleash his trademark brand of genial insanity, and the casting of an actor so undeniably associated with the Vietnam War is inspired as it allows the audience to unconsciously assume events in Lyle’s past that made him an assassin for hire. Yet director John Dahl has said they didn’t want Hopper for the role of Lyle at all but rather imagined him as Wayne, the part that ultimately went to Walsh. Dahl said he didn’t understand why Hopper would want the role of Lyle, as Hopper had played characters like Lyle many times over. Hopper responded that was not entirely true: he had never played an insecure killer.
Lyle’s insecurity is indeed key to the character. He easily takes comments as personal affronts, which plays on Michael’s desire to do the right thing. Yet Michael’s good deeds never rescue him from his problems. At best, they simply keep his problems from turning into tragedies. This is no morality tale about the inevitable catastrophic results of mendacity, but rather an examination of a world where dishonesty is inevitable. Grabbing an unattended $40 now would save accidentally being hired to commit murder later, and knowing that won’t save you, but it will at least allow you to choose your misery.
The feel of Red Rock West is languid and cool, with hazy days followed by nights bathed in impossibly blue light. There is a softness about the Wyoming night, a blackness that seems daunting but not impenetrable. The intense blue of the daytime sky is reflected in everyone’s eyes, especially in the beginning when some innocence can still be claimed. Though ostensibly about Michael’s struggle with morality and honor, the primary theme of Red Rock West is loneliness and selfishness as a common side effect of solitude. Even partners and lovers are distant, any affection between them feigned for the sake of ulterior motives. Open spaces are everywhere: Expanses of low-cut fields, spacious homes and bars, even large cars with vast interiors. The visual emptiness focuses attention on the characters, and strong performances propel a plot that falters at times. The usual twists and upsets are plausible, yet Red Rock West never fully achieves the tricky task of making the protagonist’s plight seem truly unavoidable. Cage plays his role with an uncharacteristic amount of restraint, but his inherent intensity make it difficult to believe he could ever be as naïve as Michael.
Red Rock West was Dahl’s second film and received an extremely limited U.S. theatrical release after distributors claimed there was no market for a Western film noir and panicked, immediately selling the U.S. rights off to video and HBO to recoup their investment. It was rescued from straight-to-cable hell by the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco after its single festival showing in Toronto, becoming a surprise underground hit and receiving significant critical praise. Yet Dahl’s understated neo noir style never fully connected with audiences, leading to similar distribution woes for his next film The Last Seduction. These two films are his most highly regarded and currently linger somewhere between cult status and modern classics of neo noir. In the 20 years since it was made, the cynicism of Red Rock West now looks almost charming in its innocence, its lingering landscapes and twisting plot lines no more modern than those in a film from the golden age of noir.