Reflections on Red Rock West (1992) (no spoilers)

“Red Rock West” is a dreamy, neo-noir masterpiece of storytelling. Written by Rick and John Dahl, starring Nicholas Cage, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh.


Michael Williams (Nicholas Cage), a former Marine from Texas, finds himself broke and in the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, looking for a job. The honest Michael takes a detour from integrity and, when mistaken as Lyle from Dallas who has a job waiting for him in tiny Red Rock’s only bar, takes the opportunity and pretends to be Lyle. Unfortunately for Michael, he just stole the wrong job — bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) hired Lyle to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).


Michael tries to do the right thing. He tries, many times, to leave Red Rock. He cannot. Each time he escapes the town he passes by this sign. The first time he passes by the sign it’s ominous, the second time it’s disturbing, and the third time it’s funny. You know he will be back. The town is Fate, and you cannot escape Fate.


“Red Rock West” made me sad. I suddenly became desperately, intensely nostalgic for the 1990s. For the first time in my life I found myself missing that decade, the decade where as an adult I really came to understand films, to have films evoke new ideas and powerful emotions. In the 1990s I always considered myself a child of the 80s, but as I age I realize that the 1990s were my true formative years.


“Red Rock West” made me sad. I found myself missing, deeply missing, J.T. Walsh. It’s selfish of course. I never met him, didn’t know him, know nothing about his personal life. All I know is that he was a terrific actor, one whose presence is obviously missing in cinema today. There are movies made after Walsh died that have easily definable Walsh-shaped holes in them. You watch them and realize, damn, J.T. Walsh should have been in this. He should be alive.


In college an English professor of mine advocated a literary tool he bitterly called “Stupid Reading”. The best example of this was in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck encounters a boy named Buck. The point was that, where a parallel is obvious (i.e. so obvious it’s “stupid”), you cannot ignore that parallel without missing the entire meaning of the work.

In “Red Rock West”, Michael is believed to be Lyle from Dallas. Later, to complicate things, the real Lyle from Dallas arrives. Both men are from Texas. Both men were in the Marines, Lyle in Vietnam and Michael stationed in Beirut at the embassy in 1983. Michael was wounded in the bombing and we wonder if Lyle from Dallas was wounded in Vietnam, physically or emotionally. Hopper, with his obvious cinematic ties to Vietnam, helps lead the viewer to fill in Lyle’s background. It’s easy to extrapolate more similarities: Michael struggles with life after the Marines and is only now finding himself in a life-defining situation. Lyle must have completed his own journey years ago and emerged as a killer for hire.


Like most film buffs, I suffer from film fatigue. We’ve seen it all. After thousands of movies, it’s rare for me to have a visceral reaction to films anymore.

Yet even though I had seen “Red Rock West” once, back in its cable run in the mid-1990s, I still gasped out loud at many of the plot twists. I cooed over the gorgeous, languid cinematography, the desolate landscapes and long wet roads. I teared up when I saw J.T. Walsh on the screen… my God, he’s been gone for so long. I told Nicholas Cage out loud to not let that woman talk him into going back to the damn town; I laughed when that woman finally suggested it.


Apparently the film almost didn’t see the light of day. It went straight to video and was saved only by the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, which showed the film in an unlimited run in 1994. If you’ve never seen the film, do yourself a favor and avoid spoilers.

FURTHER READING:

Bright Lights Film (note: the article states Michael is a Vietnam veteran, but that is incorrect. Lyle from Dallas is the Vietnam veteran.)

Review at Qwipster

J.T. Walsh

Reflections on J.T. Walsh (warning: PDF)

 

8 Comments

  1. Craig Zablo says:

    Excellent choice for a movie reflection — and well done. I remember watching “Red Rock West” for the first time and really digging it. Repeated viewings didn’t change my view.

  2. FilmDr says:

    Red Rock West is great, and I enjoyed your post, but the best Dahl noir is The Last Seduction with Linda Fiorentino. John Dahl’s works deserve more critical attention and appreciation.

  3. Vanwall says:

    Good time to reflect on a great film – “Red Rock West” has held up extremely well, and it’s Nick Cage’s best film, IMHO. The cinematography was half the attraction, and, hey, it’s got a train in it, too.

  4. Stacia says:

    I can’t take credit for the idea of “Red Rock West”, since members of LAMB chose it before I became aware of the LAMB Movie of the Month. But it was a film I had wanted to revisit, simply because I knew from experience that what I got out of it 10-12 years ago isn’t what I’d get out of it today.

    I do like “The Last Seduction”, but I think “Red Rock West” is better – but I’d have to watch it again to be sure. Dahl should have gotten much more attention, his work is amazing, yet now he’s directing TV shows. (They could be good TV shows as far as I know, but I don’t watch TV so I couldn’t say.) And it is by far Nick Cage’s best film, no question.

  5. I’ve never seen this and I was astonished to find out that this film didn’t take place in Nevada, which is where I’m from. We have a Red Rock there and of course Kill Me Again is set in Nevada so I just thought…

    You shouldn’t just think…

    I love what you said about the nostalgia factor of the 90s and how it was an adult coming of age. I felt the same way. I was in my early 20s and worked at a video store towards the beginning of the decade. The DTV market was really interesting back then. I miss those days… We had this great mom and pop shop (not the one I worked at) that picked up these kinds of movies every week. It’s where I saw whacked stuff like Star Time and Midnight Fear.

    Good times, indeed.

  6. Fletch says:

    I’d like to take a piece of each comment and combine them for my own. Terrific job overall, from the Walsh reflections to the 90s ones – both sentiments that I agree with wholeheartedly.

    And I’m with Vanwall in thinking that this is one of, if not the best film of Cage’s career. At the very least, it’s one of the last great movies he made before he became an action figure.

  7. Reid says:

    This is a film I like to recommend, as I think it’s a film that fell throught the cracks. It’s also a film that I think mainstream film fans would easily enjoy. I liked Last Seduction, but prefer Rock. After seeing those film, I was excited about Joy Ride…yikes! what a disappointment. I wasn’t too crazy about Rounders either. I’ve heard good things about You Kill Me, though, so maybe I’ll check that out.

  8. Stacia says:

    I think Cage became an action hero after the success of “The Rock”, which wasn’t a bad film necessarily, but was never one of my favorites.

    I did really like him in “Adaptation”, which is one of those movies I need to see again but keep forgetting to.

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