Red Rock West is one of those movies that was shown on HBO in the fall of 1993 and hinting to anyone and everyone it was a dud. HBO would feature movies in the early 1990s on “Thursday Night Prime.” Many of these movies were bona fide straight to video schlock like Stepfather III and Prayer of the Rollerboys.
So, when Red Rock West was advertised as a “Thursday Night Premiere,” a lot of people probably took it for schlock. Those that tuned in more than likely found themselves pleasantly surprised by a movie that has a great cast, a great script, a great plot and a great look to it. Red Rock‘s journey from a movie shown on HBO to being hailed as one of the greatest movies of 1994 (and the 1990s) is something I will discuss a little later.
The plot revolves around Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage), a former Marine with a bad leg, that arrives in the desolate winter Wyoming praire lands hoping to get a job on an oil rig. An old friend has assured him it’s a done deal but when the supervisor hands him an application to fill out “for formalities,” Michael can’t tell a lie and metions his bad leg. And he doesn’t get the job even when his friend tells him he should’ve kept quiet. Michael tells him it wouldn’t have seemed right.
So, Michael leaves frustrated and broke with only five bucks in his wallet and some pocket change in a coffee can. His friend offers to loan him some money but he refuses. He stops at a gas station and even though the front is empty with a cash box open in full sight with about $100, Michael doesn’t take it. And for good reason because the owner comes in and they chitchat as he puts $5 worth of gas in the car. The owner tells Michael of the town Red Rock West down the road where everyone hangs out at a bar The Red Rock where he might be able to find work.
There’s not much in the town but when he goes into The Red Rock, he begins to talk with the proprietor, Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh), who notices the Texas license plate on Michael’s care and presumes he’s “Lyle from Dallas.” Michael lies and admits he is. But Wayne is wanting more than a bartender, which is what Michael thinks, he’s wanting a murderer.
Wayne explains that he’s contacted Lyle to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), and has offered him $5,000 upfront and $5,000 when the job is done. He tells Michael to go out and observe Suzanne who should be out riding her horse that afternoon. He gives Michael a key to the house and tells him to make it look ike a burglary. Michael observes Suzanne out riding with her horse trainer, Kurt (Dale Gibson), and they go into a camper.
Michael approaches Suzanne in the home and warns her of Wayne. Suzanne offers him more money to kill Wayne. But Michael decides the best thing to do is to write an anonymous letter to the local sheriff’s department, take whatever money he has gotten, gas up his car, get some food for the road and get the hell out of town. Adding comic elements, Michael goes through a gas station store grabbing chips and beer and whatever else he can think of as the young attendant looks confused but bags everything up.
Unfortunately, Michael should’ve gassed up down the road because a rainstorm comes in as he’s leaving town. Along the highway he notices a broke down vehicle and then someone steps out into the roadway causing Michael to brake suddenly. But because of the slick roads, the car hits the person. Faced with leaving the person or helping out, he throws the money in the glove box and gets out. Much to his surprise, the stranded motorist is Kurt.
When Michael takes Kurt to the hospital, things go from bad to worse. As he’s waiting, two sheriff deputies, Matt Greytack (Timothy Carhart) and Bowman (Dan Shor), have been called. It seems that Kurt wasn’t just hit by Michael’s car, but the surgeons have removed a bullet from his body. And things don’t look good for Michael as he soon discovers some other truths about the town.
To make matters worse, the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) shows up and Michael finds himself not only being suspected of shooting Kurt but also being hunted by Lyle who wants money. Michael also learns some more things about both Wayne and Suzanne that causes major changes to all that’s happening. Tgey have some skeletons in their closet and it’s more than a little afternoon delight between Suzanne and Kurt.
To discuss the plot further would be to ruin the joy as the movie keeps twisting with each new plot point. Normally movies that have too many twists and turns seem to do so with little disregard for plot. Yet this movie is different. Like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, it puts Michael in a situation where he finds himself becoming more entangled. And Cage manages to reign in his outrageous style of acting to make Michael a more sympathetic person. In a conversation with Lyle, we learn that Michael was injured in the Oct. 23, 1983 Marines barracks bombing in Beirut. Why Michael hasn’t recevied benefits is never discussed. It’s possible the government has ruled he can still work.
Director John Dahl, who co-wrote the script with his brother, Rick, has made a movie where the characters seem real and genuine. There’s a nice scene between Michael and truck driver (Dwight Yoakam in his first movie role) in which Michael tries to tell a lie but the driver doesn’t believe it. Despite this, he still offers Michael a ride because it’s worth helping out. You can tell that a truck driver would act the way he would toward Michael who doesn’t seem as threatening.
Walsh does his usually sleazebag role as Wayne. The Walsh could always play these characters in which you just felt he could really be these awful people in real life. He spent many years playing these types of character and did such a good job at it, it’s a shame he died of a heart attack in the winter of 1998. Hopper is a right as Lyle walking around in cowboy boots and a hat that seems a little bigger than it should be. He also moves his body around in a stiffness like he’s alert to everything. And Boyle adds more to the role than what is the typical trophy wife/femme fatale stereotype.
Now, Red Rock was filmed in 1992 in Arizona doubling for Wyoming on a budget of $7 million. The rights were sold to Columbia TriStar for domestic distribution but test screenings were not positive and they didn’t know how to market it. They even tried to get it submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 but were told that is wasn’t a festival-style movie. So, it was broadcast seven times on HBO in the fall of 1993.
However, the movie had been shown overseas in Paris, London and Germany in the summer of 1993. One of those who had seen it in Paris was Piers Handling, who was director of the Torontio International Film Festival, who was able to show it at TIFF in September of 1993. At this location, Bill Banning, who owned Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, wanted to show it in America. However, he spent months trying to determine who owned the rights and didn’t find out until January of 1994, a month before it was scheduled to go on the home video market.
Finally, on Jan. 28, 1994, Roxie Cinema showed Red Rock West and it reportedly broke box office records leading for it to expand to other cities, including Los Angeles and New York City, later in the year. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars and his film critic colleague Gene Siskel praised it greatly on their show together. It is really a movie that hooks you in and keeps you thinking of what’s going to be next.
What do you think? Please comment.