I know what my film history professors in college taught me. (Well, I know most parts of it. I wasn't buying all they had to offer.) I know that, according to them and an article by Paul Schrader, film noir was a movement and not a genre. It lasted from The Maltese Falcon through Touch of Evil, and then it was done. According to them, nothing else is noir.
I don't mean to quibble with a professor who had a hand fetish and the writer of Taxi Driver, but there a few movies I've seen since then that make me think of Sam Spade or a Mexican Charlton Heston; movies that make me think I should never trust attractive women and movies that make me assume there's at least one sociopathic killer in every bar. The trendy thing to say about these movies is that they're "neo-noir" - which implies to me that they're inferior knock offs of film noir - but every once in a while one of these films hits all the right notes and makes me reconsider what I was once taught. (Which, of course, is something we should always do anyway. Hooray for contrarianism!)
(Is contrarianism even a word? If not, I call dibs on inventing it.)
Which brings us to today's film, Red Rock West. Directed by John Dahl (who also co-wrote the film with his brother Rick), it's a deadly game between an honest man, a deadly man, a corrupt man, and...a woman. Being noir (or at the least noiresque), it's not fair for me to put a qualifier on the woman character. Is she honest? Is she deadly? Is she corrupt? You could shake a Magic 8 Ball and get a more consistent answer than I could give you about the women of noir. There's like five books I could write about them and I'd probably still miss several key points.
Nicolas Cage stars as Michael Williams, an ex-marine who is roaming the Wyoming countryside looking for work and stumbles into the middle of a murder scheme. Cage plays the character with his trademark twitch, but also stays true to that unhinged-yet-pure-hearted persona that he seemed to hit so well in the mid '90s. He gets caught up in that unrewarding cycle of trying to do the right thing, with his biggest mistake being that he accidentally accepts a gig as a professional killer. He thought the guy needed a bartender, but instead the guy needed someone whacked. I'm sure this happens all the time. So remember: Don't forget to ask what the job you're accepting is before you accept it.
The man who mistakenly hires Michael is played by the late J.T. Walsh, one of the '90s sleaziest character actors, and his wife is played seductively by a young Lara Flynn Boyle, who embraces the role of femme fatale with ease. Their dynamic with Cage's character allows for plenty of great interactions as the drifter tries to find the easiest exit from the small town of Red Rock that is left for him. The plot survives thanks to Michael's extreme string of bad luck, particularly when he stumbles into the film's most unhinged character - Lyle from Dallas, the hitman who Michael accidentally impersonated who is played by no less than Dennis Hopper.
By this point in his career anyone who loves dark cinema had seen what Hopper is capable of, and his turn as the killer here steals scenes throughout the film. He's not as crazy as he was in films like Blue Velvet, instead making Lyle seem like a relatively smart guy who just really enjoys money and killing. While all four of the film's stars are excellent - this is one of the most fantastic casting jobs I can think of in a movie - it's Hopper's energy in his scenes that really keeps Red Rock West feeling dangerous and exciting. Thanks to him we feel even more sympathy for our down on his luck hero, and at times he even makes us feel a little sympathy for Wayne and Suzanne, despite their attempts to kill each other.
Red Rock West doesn't look like the traditional noir - or the traditional midnight movie, to be honest - but it's so well-plotted by Dahl and so well acted by the cast that it overcomes all the cliches with ease. It's a little-movie-that-could, one that was even sold to HBO and premiered on cable before getting picked up and distributed theatrically, but it has always jumped off the screen at me as a truly special pulp thriller. Above all else, it's my favorite argument toward the idea that maybe noir didn't die off for good in 1958. The rain and the overcoats are (mostly) gone, but Red Rock West still feels like it belongs next to some of Hollywood's darkest crime stories.