Those elements we like in our noirs include the cold-eyed and treacherous beauty, the crooked lawmen, the scheme gone wrong, the bag of loot, the small but crucial cast of characters, the place where nightmarishly our hero cannot escape, the smoky black & white photography, and maybe the late-night blues that might come from a bar where the musicians are beginning to get tired. But most of all there is the noir’s hero, a basically moral, or at least not immoral man, usually in need of money or excitement. He is dragged down by two tragic flaws: a moment of weakness in which he broke his moral code, and the dame. Once the hero’s mistake has been made, all that comes afterwards is like clockwork, unwinding and unavoidable. We are surprised by the twists and turns but never shocked, because little, if anything, contradicts what has happened earlier. Lesser thrillers will continually pull supposedly shocking elements out of right and left field with wild abandon. But good noirs never do. Good noirs are about a net closing, and leaving the audience to feel it could close no other way. “Red Rock West” is a very good noir.
John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” retains many of these elements. The black & white of classic noir is replaced by the dusty reds and oranges of big sky country, and the film’s score mostly consists of a lonely guitar, strumming brief chords and then trailing off, as if the player can’t think of music to penetrate the Southwestern desolation. But the rest is there. Our hero is Nicolas Cage, a Texan who drives out to Red Rock, Wyoming in search of work. Early on we know he is an honest man because he refuses to lie on an application and because he walks away from an open cash register. But he is tempted, and when he walks into a Wyoming bar and is offered a job by the bartender (the magnificently sinister J.T. Walsh) who has mistaken Cage for someone else, Cage accepts. Trouble is, the job isn’t washing dishes or tending bar. The job is killing Walsh’s cheating wife.
The break in Cage’s moral code comes when he accepts the job. He knows he isn’t going to go through with it, but he wants the money. He also wants to fool Walsh’s wife (Lara Flynn Boyle, in cold, suspicious beauty mode) into thinking he’ll go through with it so she’ll pay him double to kill Walsh. Past that, Cage is completely faithful to his code, even when it might endanger himself. He accepts responsibility for his actions and is loyal to those he feels are either victims or mostly good people. But right away the one interruption in his code leads to its inability to navigate him through his newly troubled waters. What those waters are I won’t speak of, exactly, only that things get really bad when Dennis Hopper shows up (playing, well, Dennis Hopper), quickly in search of the pile of loot that he knows is lurking somewhere. Soon and inescapably the schemes and motivations are inexorably closing in on themselves and Cage, trapping him over and over in Red Rock, while he hopes to save Boyle from her husband, even though we know that’s not such a good idea.
Characterization in noirs tends to be one good motivation per character and one bad. Cage, Hopper, Walsh, and Boyle are the only real characters, and to us their motivations are made absolutely clear, as well as their shifting alliances, while within their deadly square everyone is blissfully unaware of what the others are thinking. There are, of course, improbable contrivances to a film like this, and a temptation to become histrionic, but the cast resists and we swallow the melodrama. Cage is low-key and subtle as the honorable drifter. His foul mouth and grungy temper are so far from saintly that his adherence to doing the right thing is all the more believable and interesting. Hopper, with an even fouler mouth, is obnoxious and vicious, as amused by the mess into which he wanders as he is greedy. Walsh is so contained, save a few outbursts, that we can’t tell if he’s plotting or just seething with a sense of middle-age failure. Filling the Edward G. Robinson role is Timothy Carhart in a small but entertaining part as the straight-arrow, open-mouthed deputy, who puts the pieces together and helps the plot along. Director John Dahl (who co-wrote “Red Rock West” with his brother Rick) keeps the film stark and clear, emphasizing the wide-open spaces of Wyoming as much as the motivations and schemes of Cage and the others. There are a couple spurts of violence, but these are kept brief, unless the inflicted wound is especially ironic or poignant.
For performances, technique, and skill, I give “Red Rock West” eight vaults. For its choice of having as its protagonist an ethical man in need of money instead of simply a man in need of money, and for making a parable of his dilemma, I award “Red Rock West” an extra vault. Consider Cage’s behavior at the end of this film and compare it to how he behaves at the end of Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Rock.” In the Bruckheimer noise-festival Cage renounces all idealism and fidelity in the rule of law, the judicial system, and arguably even America, just for what is essentially buried treasure; his selfishness is intended to be crowd-pleasing. I find movies that involve morality more interesting than those that involve selfishness, self-defense, or purely personal loyalty. A movie about a guy running from a lion can be good, but it’s usually better if he let the lion out himself.
Finished May 21, 2002.
Copyright 2002 Friday & Saturday Night
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