The Tao of Nicolas Cage: ‘Red Rock West’

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An honest Cage gets caught up in an offbeat thriller.

“Adios, Red Rock.”

As we celebrate Texas Week here at FSR I knew I wanted to make sure this week’s Tao of Cage had a little Texas twang. Unfortunately I do very little planning in advance and hardly ever think things through. Last week I wrote about Joe, which would have been the perfect choice for Texas Week. Joe isn’t just Nicolas Cage’s most Texas movie but I do believe it’s his only movie that actually takes place in Texas. Go figure.

There may not be another Cage movie that take place in Texas but in 1992 Cage did play a drifter from Texas. This week we’re talking Red Rock West!

In this offbeat thriller Cage stars as Michael Williams, a former Marine from Odessa now looking for work in Wyoming. A friend gives him a tip about a job opportunity on an oil rig and Michael decides to check out, but the foreman of the site passes on him due to the fact that he’s a liability thanks to a bum knee he has from his time in the marines. With only $5 to his name, Michael continues his trek across Wyoming, hoping to find work elsewhere.

Unfortunately Michael can’t catch a break. As soon as he leaves the oil rig he realizes he’s just about on empty. He finds a nearby gas station and uses the last bit of money he has to put a little extra gas in his tank. Just when all hope seems lost the gas attendant suggests Michael head for Red Rock, a little town about 40 miles away.

When Michael arrives at Red Rock he stops at the local watering hole, also named Red Rock. It’s midday and there’s no one at the bar other than the owner, Wayne (JT Walsh). When Wayne sees Michael he mistakes him for someone else, asking Michael if he’s here for the job. Michael, very desperate for work, decides to pretend to be this other person and accept the job without knowing what it is. Uh oh.

Wayne invites Michael back to his office and explains the details. The pay is a huge stack of cash, half of which Michael gets now and the second half coming once the job is done. The job is to kill Wayne’s wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). Realizing there’s no turning back, Michael accepts the cash and continues to go along with everything Wayne is saying.

Michael never intends to actually kill Suzanne. His plan is to just take the money and get out of town but he does feel obligated to try and do the right thing. Michael decides to pay Suzanne a visit and let her know that her husband paid to have her killed. In doing so Suzanne offers Michael double the money to kill Wayne. Michael accepts the money.

Now with more money than he knows what to do with Michael can quickly leave Red Rock never to return. Before doing so he does write a letter to the sheriff of Red Rock explaining that this couple have both paid a to have each other killed. From this point on it should be smooth sailing, but Michael still can’t catch a break.

As he exits the town it’s a dark, rainy night. With visibility out on the highway poor Michael ends up hitting a man with his car. The accident occurs in the middle of nowhere. There are not witnesses and likely no one else around for miles. Michael could easily flee and no one would ever know. But Michael is a good guy and can’t leave this man here to die. He scoops the victim up and drives him back to the hospital in Red Rock and that’s when things get really crazy.

I’ll never forget the time I first saw Red Rock West. I was about seventeen, and I was working at a Kmart in Phoenix. I was working in the electronics department, and this was perfect for me because this was back when big box stores still had rather large movie sections. Kmart has all the major releases that would come from the big studio vendors, but then they also had these racks that were filled by smaller vendors. These racks were filled with $3 DVDs of all kinds of different films. There were older films, newer films, small indie entries and forgotten about bigger budget flicks.

DVDs were a hot commodity at this time, and most titles were still $20 or more so these $3 titles would go quick. The vendor actually had to come back every week to refill this rack, and you never knew what titles would be there the following week. One film may always be part of the rotation with 5–6 copies always available, and another film might just appear once with about 2 copies.

Going through this rack was very, very exciting and something I did every week. It resulted in me buying a lot of bad movies, this is true, but every so often I would come across a gem and that would make it worth it. The week I came across Red Rock West was like hitting the lottery.

At this point I was already a huge Nicolas Cage fan but I had never even heard of Red Rock West. I cannot explain the joy one experiences when they come across a movie by their favorite actor that they never knew existed. It was one of the most glorious moments of my life, and for as long as I live I’ll never forget how I came across this film.

It helps that Red Rock West is a very good movie, of course. In fact I would go as far as to say it’s great and maybe the most under appreciated Cage movie there is. When I “found” it I didn’t know anyone else that had ever seen it. To this day I don’t hear a lot of people talk about it, although everyone that does seems to love it.

Directed by John Dahl, the film is a wonderful, twisty neo-noir. It’s never quite clear where the movie is going. Once you thing you’ve figured out the direction and you know the step it takes an unexpected turn. It’s so wonderfully crafted that even though I’ve seen it countless times it still somehow manages to fool me with each viewing. I think that’s a huge credit to Dahl and the performances. I already know the story but I get so sucked in every time I watch it that I think, “ah, this time it’ll play out how I expect!”

Cage is in top form. He plays Michael with a much more nuanced performance than the Cage we’ve all come to know and love over the years. There are still some quality Cage freak outs to be had, but they’re like mini explosions that pop up every few scenes and leave as quickly as they enter. The performance as a whole is very reserved.

This is a classic case of wrong place, wrong time. Michael is a genuinely good guy and we know that from the jump. He’s upfront about his knee injury to the foreman, even though he could have lied and gotten the job, and he refrains from stealing money from the gas station even though he could have easily done so and at the time he had no money. He accepts what he thinks is going to be a job as a bartender and things just spin wildly out of control. All along the way Michael keeps trying to do what he thinks is the right thing and every single time it digs him into a deeper hole.

Red Rock West has a lot of elements you’d find in a Coen Brothers’ movie. In fact it’s very similar to Blood Simple, which came out a few years earlier. The two movies actually make for the perfect pairing if you’re looking to have a double feature this weekend. The basic plot is that basic Coen plot – good person comes across what should be easy money, things go terribly wrong.

Cage isn’t the only great performance in the film. Walsh and Boyle are both phenomenal but my favorite moments in the film are when Cage shares screen time with Dennis Hopper. Hopper plays Lyle, the hitman that Michael was mistaken for. Like Michael, Lyle is also an ex-Marine from Texas. Under some unusual circumstances, but then in Red Rock nothing is unusual, Michael and Lyle meet up completely unaware that their lives are already intertwined. These moments between Cage and Hopper are incredible. These are two heavyweights that have never played by the rules of Hollywood just chewing it up together. Their shared moments alone are worth the price of admission.

Part of why Red Rock West has sort of slipped under the radar for years is that the film never really received a theatrical release. It was purchased by Columbia Tri-Star and it was deemed to be more of a DTV or straight-to-cable release. In an article from The New York Times in the early 90’s Peter Graves, a marketing consultant for Polygram, the company that produced the film, said a theatrical release wasn’t a viable option telling the paper, “The film doesn’t fall neatly into any marketable category. A western film noir isn’t something people can immediately spark to.”

This is such bad logic in my opinion. I understand the marketing appeal of selling a movie based on its genre but why not market a movie based on the fact that it’s a good movie? It seems like sometimes that would be the best approach.

The film eventually received a limited theatrical release but that was after it had played on HBO and made its way to home video. These days the film is readily available. That DVD I bought years ago for $3 can be purchased on Amazon, although these days it’s closer to $10. The film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray in the US yet which is a shame but there is an English-friendly German version out there. If you do the streaming thing there is a really good HD version available for rent or purchase from Amazon. With good HD transfers out there hopefully it’s just a matter of time before it hits Blu-ray stateside.

As film lovers we’re always hoping to discover that “new” gem. It doesn’t matter what other people thought of it before or if they even thought of it at all. When you come across a movie that you were previously unaware of and you instantly fall in love with it that’s a special feeling that you want to share with the world. Red Rock West is my gem and I want to share it with you.

Catch up with earlier explorations of The Tao of Nicolas Cage!

My name is Chris Coffel and I usually write about Nicolas Cage. When I'm not writing about Nicolas Cage I'm usually thinking about writing about Nicolas Cage.