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‘Red Rock West’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1994

"Red Rock West" would probably have been on a lot of film critics' best-of lists last year -- if any of them had seen it. For some reason, though, no one could figure out a way to market this deliciously noirish film by director John Dahl, who wrote it with his brother Rick. It played overseas and has just come out on video, but after being rescued theatrically by a San Francisco art house, "Red Rock West" gets a belated showcase at the Key. It may now find the audience it clearly deserves.

The film bears some solid comparisons: to the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona" (but absent the overt artiness) and David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" (absent the surreal edges). The connections are underscored by the appearance of Coen/Lynch favorites Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle and a plot with so many twists, turns and loopy loops you'll be convinced it was conceived on a roller coaster ride by someone familiar with noir novelist Jim Thompson.

The funny thing is that nothing that happens in "Red Rock West" seems implausible.

Cage is Michael, a taciturn ex-Marine Texan who drives 1,200 miles on a pal's word, then loses out on an oil rig job because he refuses to lie about a bum knee. "That wouldn't be right," says Michael, establishing an ethical standard that will crop up with annoying regularity as events unfold. On a job tip, Michael heads for Red Rock, Wyo. When he walks into the town bar, owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) mistakes him for Lyle (Dennis Hopper), a Texas hit man hired to eliminate Wayne's wife, Suzanne (Boyle).

Taking Wayne's down payment, Michael promptly informs Suzanne of the plot. When she asks, "What should I do?" his response is, "If I were you, I'd get a divorce." Instead, Suzanne doubles the fee -- if he'll bump off Wayne instead. Michael is surrounded by desperate characters who keep making offers he can't figure out how to refuse. Soon after, a concerned Michael sends a note to the sheriff outlining the plot: "Please talk to them before one of them gets hurt."

Michael, of course, has no intention of killing anyone, though everyone at some point seems intent on killing him. Instead, he takes the money and heads out of a town so small you never know whom you'll run into -- or over. A hit-and-stop lands Michael in jail and even more dangerous circumstances when Wayne turns out to be ... well you'll find out.

After an escape and a brush with Wayne's bullets, Michael is picked up by the real Lyle, brought back into town and quickly put on the run again, his hunters multiplying alongside the plot twists. In a running but never belabored gag, Michael finds himself in a "No Exit"-like twilight zone, trapped between road signs reading "Welcome to Red Rock" and "You Are Leaving Red Rock."

He wishes.

When he first meets Suzanne, Michael grumbles, "I'd hate to see an innocent woman get hurt, but that's a lot of money." Fortunately, no one is innocent and as concentric schemes evolve and ulterior motives are revealed, everyone proves guilty in a hilariously protracted finale set in a graveyard. It's to the Dahls' credit that everything feels right and nothing seems ridiculous -- a classic noir sensibility.

The acting is solid throughout, from Cage's subdued but fuming Michael and Hopper's familiarly psychotic Lyle, to Walsh's weaselly Wayne and Boyle's fatal femme. Beautifully shot by Mark Reshovsky, "Red Rock West" canters along, often to a dry, reverb-laden guitar track that underscores the Wyoming atmosphere and the film's wit. It is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

"Red Rock West" is rated R for some violence and graphic language.

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