Red Rock West (John Dahl, 1993)

Designed for the film lover in mind, SHOUT SELECT shines a light on films that deserve a spot on your shelf. From acknowledged classics to cult favorites to unheralded gems, SHOUT SELECT celebrates the best in filmmaking, giving these movies the love and attention they deserve.

YOU’RE LYLE FROM DALLAS, RIGHT?

Dead tired and flat broke after driving 1,200 miles, Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) walks into a local tavern in the dusty town of Red Rock, Wyoming, and is immediately offered a job. There’s only one problem: the bar owner (J. T. Walsh) thinks Michael is a hitman and the “job” is murdering his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). And just as Michael decides to take the money and skip town without killing anyone, the real hitman (Dennis Hopper) arrives ready to do the job right. Recalling Blood Simple and other classic thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s, Red Rock West is a stylish and cutthroat neonoir full of jealousy, murder, greed, and corruption and where your best friend is a loaded gun.

Special Features:

  • NEW HD Film Transfer
  • Audio Commentary With Director And Co-Writer John Dahl
  • In Conversation: Nicolas Cage And John Dahl
  • Lyle From Dallas: Remembering Dennis Hopper
  • In Conversation: Dwight Yoakam On The Soundtrack
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Image Gallery

Red Rock West is often described as a Western-film noir hybrid, although the description might be something of misnomer. Set in Wyoming and shot in Montana and Arizona, the film does occupy a Western setting – arid plains, big skies, and loads of boots, blue jeans, and cowboy hats – but behind the decoration is a film steeped in the syntax of film noir. In the role of the honest ex-GI who stumbles into a bad situation is Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage), a former marine who drives 1,200 miles from Texas to Wyoming for an oil rig job he doesn’t get because he admits to a knee injury and who spends his last $5 on gas after passing on an unsecured cash drawer. Williams rolls into the town of Red Rock where he is promptly mistaken by local bar owner Wayne (J. T. Walsh) as “Lyle from Dallas” late for a job. Broke and desperate, Williams plays along only to discover that the job is murdering Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). He takes Wayne’s money, warns Suzanne of the plot, and then takes more cash from Suzanne in exchange for doing in Wayne. Williams happily gets out of the snake pit that is Red Rock with a glove box full of cash and having committed no murders, but he hits a man on the highway out of town and goes back to drop him off at the hospital in hopes of saving his life. No good deed goes unpunished in Red Rock and Michael lands himself in the hands of the town’s sheriff and, later, “Lyle from Dallas” (Dennis Hopper).

Forty years removed from the heyday of film noir, Red Rock West is replete with the genre’s tropes and techniques. It’s all there – the honest ex-serviceman (Michael) back from the war (Lebanon) but at arm’s reach from American prosperity, the femme fatale (Suzanne) whose self-interest is masked by her sex appeal, the dangerous and unpredictable killer (Lyle), the duplicitous head man (Wayne), the cache of money up for grabs, the neon, the shadows cast by Venetian blinds, the liminal spaces (bars, hotels, boxcars, and vehicle interiors), the bargains and double-dealing, and even a crazy, involuntary effort to outrun an oncoming train à la Arthur Ripley’s The Chase. More than anything though, Red Rock West embraces the inevitable fatalism of noir that demands that one wrong act (Michael’s deception of Wayne in hopes of a few days of bartending) spiral into an inescapable vortex of ruin. The repeated appearance of the “WELCOME TO RED ROCK” sign, mocking Michael’s futile efforts to escape the town’s clutches, borders on being openly comic, but it is also an emblem of the moral knot he must untie before he will ever be truly free of this nest of vipers. Cynicism is an ethos in noir, one that relies on coincidence and inevitability to shape its tale of good men drawn into bad worlds. Red Rock West stylishly sinks into this punishing morass with an unselfconcious fidelity to the genre that screws itself tight.

Part of Red Rock West‘s appeal arises from a series of intertextual connections. The film naturally drew comparisons to the Coens’ Texas neonoir Blood Simple (1984), although Red Rock West more prominently intersects with David Lynch’s fascinations with the American West and the rot hidden within small town Americana – Dennis Hopper and Blue Velvet (1986), Nicolas Cage and Wild at Heart (1990), Lara Flynn Boyle and Twin PeaksRed Rock West plays its noir underpinnings straight and doesn’t quite reach the degree of sinister viciousness, perversity, and desperation characteristic of Lynch’s preceding work, although it does sport the occasional Nic Cage freak-out. Dwight Yoakam makes his film debut here in addition to providing the top ten hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” to the film’s impressive country music soundtrack. The film’s connection to the Western is arguably less remarkable than some make it out to be; certainly less significant that the film’s marketers believed. Red Rock West is a comfortable example of what D. K. Holm calls the film soleil, an ’80s and ’90s twist on neonoir that traded monochrome for color, inky night for sun-baked days, concrete for open plains, and urban claustrophobia for Western agoraphobia. Think Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), Kill Me Again (John Dahl, 1989), One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992). Kalifornia (Dominic Sena, 1993), and U Turn (Oliver Stone, 1997).

Much like Michael struggles to escape Red Rock, Red Rock West found itself initially confined to distribution purgatory. John Dahl co-wrote Red Rock West with his brother Rick Dahl and made the film with a budget of $7 million. It was sold to Columbia Tri-Star but unconvinced of the film’s marketability, the distributor sold it to cable and the movie screened seven times on HBO in the latter part of 1993. Thanks to a European theatrical release of Red Rock West, Piers Handling of the Toronto International Film Festival programmed the film for TIFF and it thankfully found a supporter in Bill Banning, owner of San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema. Banning booked the film in his theatre in January 1994 despite its previous television screenings and a forthcoming video release, aware that other movies like Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984), Guncrazy (Tamra Davis, 1992), and Hearts of Darkness (Eleanor Coppola, 1991) had found theatrical followings despite video and cable releases of their own. Banning was right and Red Rock West broke the Roxie’s box office records, causing the movie’s theatrical run to consequently expand to eight theatres in San Francisco and then openings in LA and New York.

With more than 50 spine numbers to Shout Select’s credit, the imprint has established itself as a champion of commercial cinema and, of late, the label has shown increasing interest in films of the 1990s. With only pan and scan DVDs released in North American and a bare bones Blu-ray released in Germany, Red Rock West is precisely the kind of film Shout Select seems to exist to celebrate. Dahl’s film is in need of hard media revisitation and Shout Select could be Red Rock West‘s hi-def Bill Banning. Dahl’s follow up film The Last Seduction (1994) is another title lacking a definitive hard media release and these same concerns could be equally expressed for that title as well. Could we get another classic Shout Select double bill on par with the Bill & Ted films, Robert Mitchum’s Raymond Chandler films, and Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs and Matinee?!? MMC! hopes so!

Credits: With no quality edition of Red Rock West to draw upon, this imaginary Shout Select edition is entirely …  imagined. The title summary is based on a couple of DVD and cassette synopses. Ann Hornaday’s article for The New York Times was invaluable to this post. Roger Ebert’s very positive review was good too. 😉

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