' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Rock West (1993)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Rock West (1993)

The beginning of John Dahl’s superb 1993 neo-noir “Red Rock West” finds ex-marine Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) climbing out of his car, where he has apparently slept, on a deserted stretch of highway somewhere in Wyoming, crystallizing his transient lifestyle. It pairs well with the closing image where he has, for necessary reasons, forsaken his car to ride the rails instead. The only difference between the two, other than the modes of transport, is that at the end, Michael has a little bit of money. Ah, and isn’t that what it’s always about? “And for what?” Sheriff Marge Gunderson once rhetorically wondered. “A little bit of money.” Everybody in “Red Rock West” wants a little bit of money, as characters in these sorts of crime thrillers do, but the agreeably delightful twist on Michael’s predicament is how frequently his troubles stem not from any kind of misplaced greed but economic desperation and, even more, injudicious honesty.

Dahl’s introduction impressively takes its time. Widescreen shots of windswept Wyoming pair with close-ups of Michael pulling a dime store novel version of Superman changing in the phonebooth, as he rolls out of his car looking worse for wear but credibly cleaning up, shaving underneath a windmill and pulling on a bright white snap shirt before smiling at himself in the reflection of his car window and play-acting meeting some important-sound mister. It just feels like the set-up to a heist, or something similarly nefarious. It’s not. He’s getting ready for a job interview on a drilling crew, which doesn’t go so well when he admits his leg is busted. Not long after, his car running on fumes, he finds himself in a desolate gas station and face to face with wads of cash that he could so easily swipe. He resists, however, and these two moments taken in tandem are cunning configuration of a man who might be down on his luck but still has integrity.

That integrity is important to understand so that when Michael gets to Red Rock, is mistaken for another man (“Lyle from Dallas”), gets offered a lot of money to murder Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), the wife of Wayne (J.T. Walsh), who promptly offers him more money to instead murder Wayne we understand what he is forgoing by seemingly agreeing to each of their terms. Not that he is necessarily acting out of turn even as he proceeds to play Suzanne and Wayne against each other. Why he even takes the time to write a letter to the Red Rock Sheriff explaining this murder for hire plot, asking if the law can consult with these faux lovebirds, as if he is an eccentric, ersatz marriage counselor. Still, since it has been made clear that ethics matter more than money, by taking their cash and then fleeing town, Michael becomes not a victim of Murphy’s Law but a violator of his own established code.

Granted, Dahl lets Michael have a little fun being in the money. If so often movies convey instant riches by way of party scenes, cash being thrown in the air, jetskiing, girls in bikinis, here sudden wealth is merely a couple brown bags of convenience store groceries, a six-pack of Bud and gassing up the car. My favorite shot in the whole movie was a simple one, a camera looking up from beside the gas nozzle as Michael looks toward it with a smile. It is not a self-satisfied smirk, mind you, for what he has pulled; it is satisfaction at finally having a full tank of gas. So naturally when he hits the road, Texas swing dialed up on the radio, and the rain starts to fall in sheets, like he’s suddenly Marion Crane in “Psycho”, the turn you know is coming is extra terrible.

From there, “Red Rock West” becomes a series of narrative switchbacks as Michael’s repeated thwarted attempts to flee town are dryly, comically punctuated by him passing the Red Rock town sign on the way back in. Michael must fend off Wayne, which he partially does by teaming up with Suzanne, though all of them will have to deal at one point or another with the actual “Lyle from Dallas.” The latter is played by a menacingly convivial Dennis Hopper who manages, moment to moment, to come off both unhinged and totally in control. Walsh, on the other hand, comes across in control until that control is threatened at which point he loses it like a guy in bad traffic. And Flynn Boyle is exemplary at speaking in a way to make you not believe her but want to believe her. Then there’s Nic Cage.

The kids today know Cage predominantly from “Wicker Man” memes, and things of that nature, indicative of his late career slide (or is it ascent?) into unabashed hammy orchestrations. The Cage of “Red Rock West”, however, is cut more from the “Honeymoon in Vegas” mold, a bug-eyed everyman in too deep. He moves through the various twists and turns with the air of a man who wishes he could take back his one bad decision but knows he can’t. Yet if the movie plays like the universe conspiring against Michael for his singular sin, it also brings him to the precipice of atonement, which he latches onto by sending so many stacks of cash blowing away in the wind. Sorry to spoil it, but it’s a quarter-century old, people, and I want to linger over that wonderful moment, one intrinsically encapsulating the great Dwight Yoakam tune accompanying it. So often people want to get rich quick and get somewhere else, somewhere - cough, cough - better. As “Red Rock West” ends, Michael Williams is a thousand miles from nowhere, and there is nowhere, bless his heart, he would rather be. And even if he does keep a little bit of money for himself, well, hey now, that’s just for expenses.

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