Nicolas Cage in: Red Rock West

Red Rock West

Released in 1993 ▪ Review posted February 16, 2014

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound

Buck or a pound

Buck or a pound

Is all that makes the world go round

The MC (Cabaret)

Time has done Red Rock West no favors. Through no fault of their own, all the leads of this movie became associated with other characters they played in other films. To me, Lara Flynn Boyle will forever obsess over Wayne, Dennis Hopper will always send love letters, and Nicolas Cage—well, his fate is ambiguous enough to warrant this weekly critique.

There’s also J. T. Walsh, an actor so typecast by Hollywood that his name in the credits spoils any film ending. (Hint: He did it. Whatever “it” is, if J. T. Walsh was cast, he did it.) I say all this because I want to be clear about the baggage this movie started out with. That way, when I talk about how it overcomes these obstacles and is epically good, it’ll be a huge surprise.

Are you ready?

Red Rock West has excellent pacing, acting, and writing. It capably folds the film noir genre into the western genre. It’s well directed and sticks the landing, which can be difficult in a hybrid-style mystery. It’s also just 95 minutes, which, after sitting through mind-numbing 120-minute Cage movies for several weeks, is refreshing. Whatever happened to making a good, short, three-act movie?

In Red Rock West, Nic plays a Vietnam vet who’s down on his luck and looking for work. After spending his last five dollars on gas, he ends up in Red Rock West, where J. T. Walsh mistakes him for a contract killer he hired by phone to murder his wife (played by Boyle). Nic goes along with the identity mistake and accepts the $5,000. He snitches on Walsh to Boyle, and takes another $5,000 from her to turn around and kill Walsh instead. Nic, who by this point has been in several ethically challenging situations and has always done the right thing, flees the town, $10,000 richer and having killed no one. Unfortunately, he happens to hitch a ride with the actual contract killer, played by Dennis Hopper. There’s much more nuance and Bob Ross–level shading to the finer details of the plot. If the above entices you, I highly suggest a viewing.

Nic is reinvented in this movie. He’s not the heartthrob we’ve seen before. He’s not the action hero yet to come. He’s more mature in both reality and in his characterization. The thing that Nic clearly and artfully establishes in scene one is that his character, Michael Williams, is a moral man with a lot of cowboy-style pride. He picks up on that early and uses it as a foundation for his portrayal. This is way better than his occasional choice to act with one note (cf. Snake Eyes, where every motivation for every action was “I’m on cocaine”).

Cage gives a multi-faceted performance, projecting both an outer machismo that contracts to assassinate wives, and an inner conscience that would never actually commit murder. He shows the viewer his frustrating inner turmoil about his relationships and place in the world. It’s engaging on every level. He’s cast perfectly. What’s more—aside from one minor outburst—he leaves all the maniacal clamor exactly where it should be: in the capable hands of Dennis Hopper.

Red Rock West turns out to be Nicolas Cage’s highest rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes, with a score of 95 percent. Even Roger Ebert liked it. So, after its premiere to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, it went on to major box office success and multiple Oscar nominations, right?

Well, no. Hollywood sucks, and felt that despite all of the above, audiences wouldn’t see it and wouldn’t like it if they did. It was released directly to cable and video, until a San Francisco man, who was so enamored by his one viewing back in Toronto, started showing it at his theater. A few art houses eventually picked it up, and it premiered in France, but it ultimately lost the studio about $4.5 million, and thus you’ve probably never heard of it.

As in the story of Red Rock West, the pursuit of riches once again ruined a good thing.

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