Direct-to-video no longer has the stigma it once did. Back in the heyday of home video for a film to bypass a theatrical release and go straight to video was reserved for the likes of cheesy erotic thrillers and B-movies starring washed-up actors. Like time, stigma is a funny thing. The scarlet letters of yesteryear are a distant memory due in large part to streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, which have begun to change this perception by releasing high profile movies like Bird Box (2018) on home video as opposed to giving them a wide theatrical release.
Back in 1993, however, Red Rock West (1993), a modest neo-noir starring Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle, was unjustly sold to cable television when it wasn’t considered easily marketable by the studio that owned it. Fortunately, it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival where a San Francisco-based theater owner rescued it from obscurity. While it still didn’t make back its modest budget at least it was given a second chance before being relegated to home video.
Michael (Cage) is a down-on-his-luck war veteran living out of his car and looking for work. A knee injury rules him out of jobs such as an oil drilling gig he shows up for in Wyoming. We learn some important things about him in this opening scene. He’s honest. He could’ve lied on his application about his injury but didn’t. He has integrity. After failing to get the job his buddy told him about he offers Michael a few bucks to which he refuses, telling him, “Don’t worry about me.” This scene is important as it establishes what kind of a person he is – he’ll make his own through life. This is especially crucial later on when we begin wondering who we can trust.
Michael soon finds himself in the sleep little town of Red Rock, arriving like a gunslinger when he goes into a bar looking for leads on any work in the area. Wayne (J.T. Walsh), the owner, mistakes him for a hitman from Dallas he hired to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). Michael goes along with the ruse long enough to take half the money, warn the wife, take her money to kill Wayne, and skip out of town, letting this clearly dysfunctional couple settle their own issues. Of course, this being a noir story it is never that simple and Michael runs into the real hitman, Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper), and finds it increasingly difficult to get out of Red Rock. Part of the fun of watching Red Rock West is seeing poor Michael get deeper and deeper in trouble as his attempts to leave town are thwarted.
Coming off the modest hit that was Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Nicolas Cage brought an affable everyman quality to Michael as he tones down his trademark Cageisms, which may explain why it isn’t one of his more celebrated performances. Some might consider this to be one of the actor’s tamer performances but so what? You can’t have crazy all the time as that too becomes predictable and stale. I like that Cage plays Michael as a reluctant protagonist that seems to always make the wrong decisions. There are scenes where we see Michael weighing his options over in his mind or berating himself after a particular one goes badly.
Hot off her role as good-girl-next-door Donna in Twin Peaks, Lara Flynn Boyle plays a duplicitous femme fatale. With her flinty gaze and emotionless demeanor, Suzanne is clearly not to be trusted but for some foolish reason (perhaps sex with her clouded his judgment), Michael does and this unnecessarily complicates his life. With the exception of the first season of Twin Peaks, I’ve found Boyle to have a cold presence, which may explain why her most believable role is as an alien in Men in Black II (2002). Dahl finds a way to use her iciness to effect as a scheming woman that manipulates Michael to do her bidding.
When Dennis Hopper shows up he gives the film a jolt of unpredictable energy as Lyle from Dallas, the real hitman. He’s a genial, good ol’ boy until he has to do his job and then Hopper brings his trademark scary intensity that we all know and love. The great J.T. Walsh plays the tightly wound bar owner/sheriff of the town that also harbors a secret. The role doesn’t require the actor to show much range but it does allow him to do what he does best – play an uptight authority figure that makes the protagonist’s life hell.
The first two thirds of Red Rock West is a slow burn as director John Dahl establishes all the characters and their relationships to one another. The last third is particularly enjoyable as we get too see the likes of Cage, Hopper and Walsh share the screen together as they head towards an inevitable confrontation.
Director John Dahl establishes an atmospheric tone right from the opening shot of an empty highway out in the middle of nowhere with ominous storm clouds overhead foreshadowing trouble. The opening credits play over a sunny version of this desolate stretch of road as we see Michael get ready for his job interview and it gives us some crucial insight into his character in economical fashion with no dialogue, instead conveyed visually. With its wide open vistas and twangy, country music-esque score, complete with frontier-type town, Red Rock West feels like a modern western fused with a neo-noir.
In 1992, Red Rock West was made in Arizona on a $7.5 million budget, financed with a negative pick-up deal selling off the cable T.V., video and overseas rights with Columbia TriStar Home Video covering $3.5 million of the production costs. They made a deal with HBO to recoup some of their money.
The film didn’t test well with audiences and fell between the cracks as it wasn’t deemed commercial enough for a strong advertising campaign or artistic enough to go out on the film festival circuit. As a result, there was little incentive for someone to buy the theatrical rights. This didn’t stop Red Rock West from opening well in Europe in 1993, which caught the attention of Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival. He decided to show it at the festival that year.
It was well received, but none of the usual art house movie distributors were interested despite the pedigree of the cast and it aired several times on HBO. Bill Banning, owner of the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, saw it at the film festival and wanted to book the film and couldn’t believe it didn’t have a distributor. It wasn’t until January 1994 that he was able to find out who owned the rights. Once it began screening at the Roxie it broke the house record in its fourth week due in large part to positive reviews in the local press and strong word-of-mouth.
Red Rock West received strong critical notices. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “It’s the kind of movie made by people who love movies, have had some good times at them, and want to celebrate the very texture of old genres like the western and the film noir.” The New York Times’ Caryn James wrote, “The director and co-writer, John Dahl, keeps up this perfect swift timing throughout the film, playfully loading on every suspense-genre trick he can imagine. Red Rock West is a terrifically enjoyable, smartly acted, over-the-top thriller.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “Cage’s naturalness as a nice guy in a big jam lends the film considerable substance while Hopper’s wily foil, Boyle’s tough dame and Walsh’s minor-league baddie provide much amusement.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman described it as “a tongue-in-cheek film noir gothic…a likably scruffy knockoff of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.”
While Red Rock West doesn’t have the acclaim of The Last Seduction (1994) or the cult appeal of Rounders (1998), I still find it to be Dahl’s most engaging and entertaining film. It didn’t deserve its initial fate. Some films get all the breaks in the world, seemingly destined for greatness. Some films get no breaks and are forgotten. Some films take on a life of their own. Time erases stigmas. No one cares if a film was released direct-to-video. Truly good art survives. It can now show up on Amazon or Netflix, waiting for someone to discover it without any pre-conceived notions.
Bearden, Keith. “John Dahl.” MovieMaker. August 2, 1994.
Galbraith, Jane. “Following the Long, Strange Trip of Red Rock.” Los Angeles Times. April 8, 1994.
Hornaday, Ann. “Film Noir, ‘Tweener or Flub’?” The New York Times. April 3, 1994.