Devils & Dust: The Corruption of Nicolas Cage in John Dahl’s Red Rock West

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Drifter Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) stares into the radiator of a car – and into the face of death.

Remember when Nicolas Cage was one of the more respected actors of the Hollywood family? It may appear like eons ago, but in the 1990s, he had a remarkable run of movies that worked and increased his reputation. Nicolas Cage couldn’t do any wrong – or so it seemed. He had the male starring role in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, became a rom-com favorite with such films as Honeymoon In Vegas and It Could Happen To You, and even scooped an Oscar as best leading man for Leaving Las Vegas. Then he turned into an action hero in the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters The Rock and Con Air. One of the underrated gems from this period in Nicolas Cage’s career is Red Rock West, an indie road movie/noir by John Dahl.

The beginning of the movie could be a situation right out of Bruce Springsteen’s all-acoustic Nebraska album. For a drilling job, the decent drifter Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) goes from Texas to Wyoming. When he doesn’t get the position, he lands in the bar of a tiny town called Red Rock – and the bar owner, Wayne Brown (J. T. Walsh), immediately asks him if his name was Lyle and what took him so long. Michael plays along and is taken to the back office to discuss a job. He’s supposed to kill Wayne’s wife.

Williams takes the money but drives out to the ranch to warn the beautiful and mysterious spouse, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). She also offers him cash for getting rid of her husband. He takes her wad as well and then attempts to leave town. On his way, he accidentally runs over another man and has to return to Red Rock, where he witnesses the arrival of the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper) – and gets into a pretty pickle. Why does Wayne want to do away with his wife? Who can Mike trust? And what exactly is the relationship between all the shady characters in town?

Red Rock West by director John Dahl is certainly among Nicolas Cage’s lesser-known projects, particularly from that era, even though it boasts a pretty impressive cast for such a relatively small project. Recently deceased Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper is on board as the villain Lyle. So are former Twin Peaks star Lara Flynn Boyle, who was also a hot commodity at the time because of her role in Wayne’s World, and character actor J. T. Walsh. Together, the quartet makes quite a fearsome foursome, despite Nicolas Cage’s Mike character essentially being an honest man who just happens to end up in a bad situation by accident.

On first glance, Red Rock West seems to be nothing but a generic modern noir. There’s certainly some truth to that. We have an ordinary Joe, who – to a certain degree without his own doing – hits rock bottom. Although not a blonde, Lara Flynn Boyle serves as the prototypical ruthless femme fatale who lures our decent protagonist into her trap. Then there’s the Dennis Hopper/J. T. Walsh double-dip of enigmatic Machiavellian baddies. Each of them has quite a few secrets up his sleeve.

In Red Rock West, both the Nicolas Cage character and the audience are mucked around with. Neither really knows what to expect next, since Mike Williams is basically surrounded by three villains who all enjoy playing hardball in their own way. Where the movie differs from your regular noir, however, is that everyone else in the film but the protagonist seems to believe Mike knows what’s happening to him – when he actually doesn’t have the slightest clue about what’s going on. Williams is as incognizant as we are.

To a point, Red Rock West is all but a comedy of errors, yet one that takes on an almost surreal, nearly Lynchian spin at times. There are moments where the setting feels reminiscent of Wild At Heart, as does the soundtrack. Each of the three main actors is, of course, also a former David Lynch collaborator, too, with Dennis Hopper having excelled as the bad guy in Blue Velvet and Lara Flynn Boyle having appeared as a regular in the classic Twin Peaks television series. So there are obvious parallels. Red Rock West, however, doesn’t give you the sense of being ‘mindfucked’ in the way Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive do.

Yet what John Dahl’s movie has in common with these David Lynch classics is excellent cinematography (here courtesy of Marc Reshovsky), a great soundtrack, good editing, and a gorgeous scenery. Check it out if you can. Together with Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, Red Rock West is one of the truly great neo-noirs that have largely flown under the radar – as well as a reminder of what Nicolas Cage was once capable of in leading role and what brilliant villains Dennis Hopper and J. T. Walsh could be. Rest in peace, fellas.