Cage Examination #18: Red Rock West

Film: Red Rock West
Demeanor: Surprisingly calm and charming, if a bit egregiously honest.
Hair Quality: It’s just…hair
Performance Quality: Six Cages Out of Ten.

I think I missed the boat on Red Rock West. There was apparently a time when this movie was revered. Judging by its 90+ Rotten Tomatoes rating and insanely enthusiastic written reviews of the time, Red Rock West was something close to the No Country For Old Men of its time, a slick, darkly thrilling noir story set in America’s back country. The critics speak of brilliant performances, clever dialogue from writer/director John Dahl, and themes previously unexplored/uncombined in the history of film. 

I’d like to actually see that movie, if it existed. Unfortunately, Red Rock West isn’t really that movie. At least, not anymore.

Maybe it was in 1993, but upon viewing it in 2012, I was struck mostly by how ordinary it all seemed. Granted, in the years that have followed, melding the spartan atmosphere of the western countryside with devious criminal elements working just under the surface of small town life is a concept that’s been explored countless times. No part of Red Rock West feels particularly special, or unique anymore. Now, it’s just another movie featuring a back country bumpkin getting in way over his head.

Granted, that back country bumpkin is played by Nicolas Cage, so you know at the very least there will be a bit of an unusual spin on the “Noir Hero Who Stumbles Into Criminal Dealings and Continues to Dig the Hole Ever-Deeper Until He Has Sex With a Mysterious Woman and Eventually Pretty Much Everyone Ends Up Dead” character. However, it’s not unusual in the manner we’ve come to expect from Cage. 

Which presents an interesting question: is something still “unusual” if it’s expected? You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Nicolas Cage performance, of course. But based on the five years of work he produced in the time between Moonstruck and here, there is a certain manic, outsized quality that remains consistent. It’s predictable unpredictability, if such a thing can exist. 

There isn’t much of that in Red Rock West. Instead, Cage plays down-on-his-luck former Marine Michael Williams as a legitimate Normal. He’s just a guy looking for work on an oil rig in Wyoming who finds himself stranded without a job, without any money, and no clear direction in life. So it’s no wonder that, upon wandering into the tiny town of Red Rock and meeting the owner of the local watering hole (the great J.T. Walsh, in top form), he sees an opportunity when asked if he’s the man “here for the job.”

The job, of course, is some rather unseemly business. As it turns out, Walsh is a man with the means and the desire to see his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle, who I will speak much of momentarily) dead. He had hired a man from Dallas to come and do the job, but as he has not shown up, and Cage has a Texas license plate on his car, Walsh naturally assumes he’s the guy here to do “the job.” 

Nicolas Cage gets a lot of shit for being a notorious over-actor, relying more on histrionics and shouting in place of actual, honest-to-God acting. If you ever want a perfect piece of refuting evidence to such a claim, watch the scene in Red Rock West where Cage is presented with this horrible task. The entire time Walsh is talking, he’s a sweaty, yet silent mess. His eyes are wide with non-belief at what he’s wandered into, and you can see the gears turning in the back of his skull as he quickly tries to figure out what to do with himself. The conclusion he comes to is surprisingly clever, and the way he handles Walsh is as deft as it is insane.

Not only does he take $5,000 in up-front payment, he then proceeds to take a little trip down to Walsh’s ranch to scope out his proposed target. He there finds Boyle, riding horseback and perhaps getting a tad too friendly with her circa-1993 studly (tanned, tanktop, tight wrangler jeans, looks a bit like a Stetson model) ranch hand. When she returns to her home, she finds Cage there, waiting for her. But he does not shoot her (even though he inexplicably already has a pistol in his glovebox), but instead tells her that her husband wants her dead. Simultaneously shocked and dismayed, Boyle then ups the ante. She offers double to reverse the situation. Cage agrees.

With $10,000 now in-hand and no particular desire to murder anybody, Cage then plans his escape from town—an escape tragically interrupted when he discovers the aforementioned ranch hand hanging out by a broken down truck and stumbling around in the road. Upon hitting the poor fellow with his car, he is stricken with guilt. So much so, that he makes the good-hearted, if utterly ludicrous decision to return to town and bring the poor man to the hospital. Would you like to hazard a guess as to how well that goes?

Those who chose “poorly” are the winners this time. Unsurprisingly, the cops are brought into the fray, and you’ll never guess who the sheriff is. Unless you guessed J.T. Walsh, in which case you’d be correct, and also shut up.

Somehow, this ends up with Cage cuffed in Walsh’s truck, Cage and Walsh fighting over a gun, and then Walsh chasing Cage through a dark forest, which eventually ends up with Cage falling down a very long hill onto a road, where a car comes to a screeching halt right in front of his face. Who should be driving this car, but Dennis Hopper, clearly not there to be a menacing presence for the remainder of the film. Hopper is angry and concerned in equal measure, but eventually agrees to take Cage back to town. Which is all well and good, until Hopper repeatedly invites, and eventually demands that Cage drink with him at the bar. You know, that bar owned by J.T. Walsh. The only thing that could make this worse is if Hopper were actually the original hitman hired by Walsh in the first place. 

As it turns out, Hopper is the original hitman hired by Walsh in the first place. Now there are two murderous scoundrels after Cage, and his only friend (seemingly) is Boyle, who he now has to alert to future attempted murder, but actually protect from all these crazy people who want her dead. 

Red Rock West just keeps piling on the ludicrous circumstances—as any noir worth its salt would—eventually culminating in one of those great late-movie showdowns where every character is out for themselves, nobody trusts anyone, and pretty much everyone ends up dead or in jail. The last third of Red Rock West almost lives up to the potential that every critic described so breathlessly in their 1993 reviews. In these late game power plays over a sizable chunk of money—oh, did I forget to mention there’s also a big chunk of money everybody suddenly starts competing for?—Red Rock West almost plays a bit like a precursor to Fargo, minus the dark comic sensibility. A bunch of disparate, desperate people come together for the sake of getting rich, and it all goes horribly sideways.

It’s in the getting there part that Red Rock West proves a bit lackluster. The writing just isn’t that sharp. It’s full of timely coincidences and totally idiotic character choices that ring deeply false. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cage’s sudden falling for Boyle’s character. These two do not exactly radiate sexual chemistry with one another, and the suddenness with which they begin boinking is obviously meant to be an alarm bell that she might have her own agenda, but Cage’s going along with it hardly seems reasonable. I mean, she’s cute and all, but she’s less a character than a living, breathing noir archetype.

Casting Boyle probably wasn’t the best idea, either. She’s an okay enough actress, though even back in the mid-’90s I saw her as more of a slight improvement on Linda Fiorentino than anything else. She’s not given much to do here save but plot, plead, and make awkward attempts at being alluring while inexplicably being shoved into outfits that I would totally show to you if every image of her in this movie on the Internet weren’t a shot of her in her bra. Yeesh.

Her attempts at deviousness are only slightly more subtle than J.T. Walsh, who, as Roger Ebert correctly points out in his review, seems to be the only guy who doesn’t understand how everything has gotten so completely, irrevocably fucked. Walsh is fantastic because he plays at a confidence that his character only pretends to have. Once things start getting out of hand, he seems as freaked out as Cage, though he’s in a better position to do something about it than Cage is.

Hopper is, as Hopper often is in films of this era, more or less just a psychotic charmer. He’s clearly insane from almost the get-go, nursing an inferiority complex and without any particular issue with killing people for money. But Hopper does more with the character than most actors—with perhaps the exception of a Christopher Walken, or Eric Roberts—would ever think to do. Like in Speed, he’s essentially unchecked, murderous id. A smiling, cackling killer who you almost sort of like, until you really, really don’t.

I suppose I might not have minded if Hopper turned out to be the victor in all of this, but alas, that honor goes to Cage’s thoroughly beaten-down Michael, now forever scarred by the experience of dealing with these crazy fucking people. He’s the movie’s moral center, so it’s no surprise he’s the only one who escapes clean. The problem is that as a moral center, Michael is such a passive, borderline dumb character that it’s hard to really feel too much for him. Cage is just fine in the role, mixing a few unexpectedly-timed outbursts with a genuinely low-key charm that works. This is not melodramatic Cage, but the role doesn’t really need that. What it did need was a bit more substance beyond a hard-luck back story and a general predilection toward honesty.

I realize that perhaps I am being a tad harsh on Red Rock West. After all, I’ve just come out of a long, dark tunnel filled with Cage roles that alternated between unbelievable and unbearable. Such a laid back turn in such a laid back movie almost feels like I’ve just wandered into another actor’s career on accident. But no, this is Our Greatest Living Actor on the cusp of a new chapter in his career. He’s about to graduate from occasional Hollywood lead and frequent direct-to-video crazy person to full-time leading man. I recognize that this is the beginning of a new path, and that I must brace myself for it. After all, if Red Rock West spooked me, how am I going to react during Guarding Tess?

I guess we’ll find out next week.

Random Thoughts:

  • Apparently Red Rock West originally debuted as an HBO film, due to the fact that the producers couldn’t find a studio to release it theatrically. It made a brief art house run in 1993, almost two years after it was filmed, and was apparently a wild success. I still have a hard time grasping that.
  • Seriously, what the fuck is going on with Lara Flynn Boyle’s costumes in this movie? Did she bring this shit from home?
  • One of my favorite small touches of the script is that Cage’s character is forced to return to Red Rock over and over again, like a Sisyphean torment. The constant return to the “Welcome to Red Rock” sign reminds me a bit of Groundhog Day, or In the Mouth of Madness.
  • Dwight Yoakam’s random cameo as a gun-toting truck driver is fantastic, but mostly because I love Dwight Yoakam in everything. Supposedly he brought his own gun for the scene, which is the best thing I’ve ever heard.
  • The early film sequence involving a shirtless Cage standing on the side of a lonely highway looking perfectly rugged reminded me just how many movies of the ’90s featured rugged-looking men standing on lonely highways as a metaphor for something or other. I blame Tom Cochran.
  • Thus far in this feature, Red Rock West represents the least amount of movement Cage’s hair has experienced for the duration of a film. It’s almost alarming how staid it is.

Next Week: Guarding Tess

  1. yearofthecage posted this
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