“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.
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.
Bright Lights Film (note: the article states Michael is a Vietnam veteran, but that is incorrect. Lyle from Dallas is the Vietnam veteran.)
Reflections on J.T. Walsh (warning: PDF)