Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicholas Cage) is a drifter, the kind that hotel fires are often blamed on. His car is the closest thing he has to a residence. At the beginning of the film, he's off to see about a job that a friend has already lined up for him. He's surprised that he has to fill out an application, but his friend assures him, "it's just a formality." It probably is, but moments later when Michael walks out of the interview without a job, we learn that he couldn't help but tell his prospective employer about a leg injury, It wouldn't be right to keep it from him, as the boss would find out eventually, he tells his disappointed friend. His friend reasons, "yeah, but you'd already have the job." Clearly, that's not good enough for Michael. In another instance, we see him stopping for gas, with five dollars left in his wallet. The station is empty and the cash drawer is open, but again Michael resists temptation and so arrives in the town of Red Rock, Wyoming completely broke.

Stopping into a bar, he talks to the bar owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh) who thinks Michael is "Lyle from Dallas" a man he has a job for. The prospect of work, entices Michael to play along. The relaxation of his honesty is rewarded by a thick stack of cash. It turns out, Wayne needs his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) killed. Michael hears him out and agrees to do the job. However, rather than kill her. he surprises her at home and tells her what he agreed to do. Suzanne doesn't seem at all surprised, and makes him a proposition, she'll pay him to kill her husband. Michael agrees, and gets a second payment, although rather than kill anyone, he decides to leave Red Rock, after writing a note for the Sheriff, telling him all about the murder plot. Unfortunately, it's tough to see on the road, and Michael accidentally hits a man with his car. Unable to fight his good nature, he returns to Red Rock, to get the man to a hospital. He waits to see about the man's condition and learns that the man was more injured by a couple of bullets, than he was by the collision. The Sheriff arrives to make an arrest, and we see that Wayne from the bar is the Sheriff too. He's not happy that his wife isn't dead. Michael comes clean and tells him he isn't Lyle. When Wayne pulls over to take care of the problem, Michael manages to escape and after a chase, tumbles onto the highway in front of a car with Texas plates. The Texan turns out to be the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper.) Lyle is a fellow ex Marine and insists that Michael have a drink with him, and after that he'll help Mike get his car back. Of course they're parked in front of Wayne's bar, so Michael knows it's a bad idea, but Lyle is so insistent he can't get out of it. "You too good to let me buy you a drink?" Lyle asks and there's nothing he can do but agree. Wayne gets to the bar while Michael's in the bathroom, prompting a bathroom window escape. Michael is on his way out of Red Rock again, but he has to warn Suzanne, that Lyle is on the way.

Michael helps Suzanne get away and they decide to escape together, getting out of Red Rock again, only to return when Suzanne recalls half a million dollars that Wayne keeps in a safe, an attractive proposition since all of Michael's money is in his car, which the Sheriff has now. Returning to Red Rock for the money, Michael learns that both Suzanne and Wayne share a secret. Lyle also finds out about the secret, and decides that he and Wayne should partner up, which to him means that Wayne can live if he splits that half a million dollars with him. Everything leads to a final four way confrontation which can only get smaller, since nobody wants to split the money four ways.

"Red Rock West" is as direct a nod to the classic film noir plots and characters as there is available. While there is a lot of maneuvering going on, the characters are exactly what they seem to be. Cage's Michael is an honest guy who's down on his luck. You can sense that his being broke is like Red Rock, a place he keeps trying to leave but can't get out of. He really tries to be honest, but being perpetually broke wears on him. After just losing a prospective job due to his honesty, he's offered another one, if he'll only claim he's someone he's not.  It seems a pretty harmless thing to do, until he learns that the job is to commit murder. Even then he doesn't miss a beat though, he keeps the money, and warns the victim, who pays him again. Things are looking up, he thinks, he can just leave town with all the money, leave a letter for the Sheriff, and all will be fine. We see Michael at a gas station, proudly filling up his tank and filling grocery bags with everything he's obviously denied himself for a long time. The guy at the counter seems amused that someone would do such heavy shopping at his gas station. Michael doesn't care, he's wasting money because he finally can. Splurging at the gas station is the best he's had it for a long long time.

His alliance with Suzanne is not that different either. He knows she was the object of a murder plot and he helps her get away. All it takes is a little attraction between them to sell him on the idea that things can work out alright. Chances are he hasn't been pursuing women in some time, being too busy travelling around trying to figure out a way to keep his car in gasoline. Nicholas Cage plays the role perfectly. This was a while before he became a caricature of himself and although he has a few outbursts, they're believable ones. For the most part he plays a kind of everyman here. The interesting thing here is that on paper, Michael shouldn't come out ahead. He isn't smarter, tougher, or more ruthless than the other players involved. His leaning towards honesty also initially appears to be a handicap. If he had been willing to leave the man he'd hit with his car on the side of the road for example, he'd have been able to escape Red Rock, and been able to live pretty well for some time. That isn't in his character however. It doesn't appear he even considers doing that. At that point he doesn't know that Wayne is the Sheriff, but even so, Michael couldn't leave the guy to die on the side of the road. It's his character that pulls him back to Red Rock over and over again. The only talent that Michael has that keeps him in the game is his adaptability, and his reasonable expectations. While Wayne, Lyle and Suzanne all seem to be overcome by dollar signs, Michael is perfectly happy to be better off than he was. The other three wouldn't bother on a gas station shopping spree. That would be a waste of time, as they each want everything.

 J.T. Walsh is great here, as a businessman type of villain. He doesn't seem to take anything personally, but at the same time doesn't like having unresolved problems. When he arrests Michael at the hospital and stops to get rid of him, we along with Michael see that he's figured out his course of action and isn't about to be argued with. This problem however, gets away from him. He couldn't have anticipated what Michael's unexpected involvement would do to complicate his life, or that Lyle would get frustrated with what should have been a simple job and take advantage of new information that's revealed when he's in town. Lara Flynn Boyle is cast perfectly too, as from the first moment she's on screen we sense that she's more than she appears to be. Michael would realize that too, if he wasn't so attracted to her. Of course, he's also introduced to her knowing she's in peril, which certainly causes him to get more involved, pushing his good guy buttons a little bit.

Dennis Hopper does what he does best here, playing a psychopath with his own peculiar set of manners. His main concern even above money, is that he doesn't want Michael thinking he's "better than him."  although everyone knows that he is. When Lyle and Michael first meet and commiserate over being Marines, he can't help but mention that he heard about the accident that led to Michael leaving the service. "I'm no hero" he tells Lyle, mentioning the men that didn't make it, but it's too late for that. Lyle's inferiority complex is already engaged.

Michael is the unknown element in the group of four converging on the big take. He can't be accounted for because to him, there's little difference between $500.00 and half a million dollars. They can all play him to a degree, but that ability is limited, because while he's a good guy, he isn't really naive, just not quite smart enough to be too far ahead based on what little information he has. He smiles and adapts, the way you'd imagine a drifter would. He tries to be honest as well, but there are limits, since he can't fill up his gas tank on nothing.

While Michael's adversaries are grasping for everything they can get, he stands outside it all in a way, acting only when it becomes necessary. He is both doomed and saved by his character, which keeps him running in and out of Red Rock. Ultimately he gets out because he's the only one of them that can let go. Unlike the others, he's so used to not having anything, that he doesn't want anything badly enough to kill for it. He ends not that differently from where he started, and while that isn't great, it's more than you can say for anyone else.

"Red Rock West" is a film with lots of twists, but all reasonable within the set up. There's no mystery that you're challenged to solve, just pieces that change motivations. Everything looks straightforward and then something is dropped in to complicate it. Each new fact makes sense once we learn it, but that doesn't mean the complications are simple. We've seen these characters before; the femme fatale who knows where the money is, the hit-man looking to get a bigger cut, the shady husband with a secret past, and the drifter who stumbles into the situation. We've seen them before because they're characters that work, and they're all brought to life very well here. The scenery is also a big part of the film, the harsh Wyoming landscape is impartial to what anybody wants, but at the same time reminds you that there are consequences. It's easily believable that the Sheriff is also the owner of the local bar, and that the Sheriff was elected without much of a background check. It's a fitting backdrop for four larger than life characters that seem to know all about looking small against the open spaces.

John Dahl does a great job applying noir conventions to a more contemporary situation and gives us a smart film about a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who knows that while good deed goes unpunished, bad deeds get punished just a little bit more. The money is always there underneath it, something that's refreshing to see. It's not often that a movie really shows the difficulty of being down to your last five bucks and needing gas in the car. Even Michael who seems less driven by money than others, drives a long way for a possible job and bends his moral code to get the next one as if his goodness is being chipped away by scarcity. We can wonder, if he had the chance again, would he still insist on talking about his leg to the last employer? Everybody needs money, like it or not, that's just a fact of life in this film and deciding you won't do anything for it just means more drifting, looking for opportunities that don't come up often.

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