Color, 1993, 98 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by John Dahl
Starring Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, J.T. Walsh
Cinématographe (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Umbrella Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (Australia RB/R2 HD/PAL), Plan B Entertainemnt (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Concorde (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9),
After the neon-soaked wave of '80s neo-noir, the '90s shifted gears with a more gritty, classical approach that provided a showcase for several notable directors -- and few shone brighter than John Dahl, arguably the maestro of '90s noir. He also had an outrageous unlucky streak when it came to distributing his films, particularly the first three that really put him on the map: Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction, with the latter two hitting cable TV before they ended up finding acclaim via theatrical runs. The case of Red Rock West proved particularly strange since its high-caliber cast including Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, and Lara Flynn Boyle (all veterans of acclaimed David Lynch projects with Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks respectively) didn't counteract the film's tepid treatment from distributor PolyGram (picking it up from music video-based outfit Propaganda Films). In a strange twist, a Canadian festival screening so impressed San Francisco exhibitor Bill Banning that he arranged to have the film exhibited in major cities through his own Roxie Releasing. The gambit worked, with the film's snappy script, whiplash plot twists, and gorgeous visual style impressing critics and art house audiences enough to solidify Dahl's name as one to watch. Dahl would continue to weave noir elements into his later studio films like Joy Ride, Rounders, and Unforgettable, but Red Red West remains a peak distillation of his ability along with co-writer brother Rick Dahl to weave classic crime film elements into a fresh, unpredictable viewing experience.
Traveling through Wyoming, scrupulously honest drifter and veteran MIchael Williams (Cage) is unable to secure a manual labor job due to a leg injury. With only a few dollars left in his pocket, he ends up at a bar in the town of Red Rock where his Texas license plate and a chance encounter at a bar lead Wayne (Walsh) to mistake him for a hit man coming from Dallas. With the offer of a job on the table to kill Wayne's wife, Suzanne (Boyle), Michael has to think fast if he wants to get some more cash without having to take any lives in the process. When he approaches Suzanne, she makes a counter offer that becomes even more complicated when the real murderer for hire, Lyle (Hopper), shows up belatedly with an agenda of his own.
To say any more about the story, especially the details involving our married couple, would spoil much of the fun of watching this film as it bounces Michael back and forth across town and over rooftops with an almost existential inability to get out of Red Rock no matter how hard he tries. There's a great deal of humor here as well with Cage and Hopper sharing some delicious banter in a few scenes, and it's a real treat trying to keep up with all the wry reversals waiting in this mousetrap of a plot.
Following its theatrical run and its USA Network airing, Red Rock West appeared on VHS in several territories including a widely available release from Columbia TriStar that did its best to seal with a tricky aesthetic filed with saturated colors and dark shadows. For some reason it became stubbornly difficult to see in the U.S. for a long time after that, and in the past decade, the first really reasonable release was separate Blu-ray and DVD editions in Germany from Concorde in 2016. (That version also featured a really amusing German dub in addition to the original English track, which is something to experience.) In 2023, Australia's Umbrella Entertainment released a standard and a deluxe edition on Blu-ray featuring an archival commentary by both Dahls and editor Scott Chestnut, a new commentary by this writer that obviously can't be evaluated, the trailer, a 17m20s Dahl trailer reel covering everything from Kill Me Again to You Kill Me, a 9m18s video essay by Petros Patsilivas focusing on the film as a signpost of sorts in Cage's career, a 13m22s "The Man from Rhode Island" study of Walsh's life and career, a 21m49s interview with editor Scott Chestnut, and a 30m11s interview with John Dahl. The transfer on this release appears to originate from the same scan used for the German release, though it improves via deeper black levels and more accurate 1.85:1 framing versus the readjusted 1.781: on the earlier disc. That release was soon followed by a U.K. Blu-ray from Signal One sublabel Plan B Entertainment, featuring a still gallery, the original commentary track, the Patsilivas video essay, a booklet with an essay by Ian Schultz, and interviews with John Dahl, Chestnut, and actor Dale Gibson.
After decades in the wilderness, Red Rock West finally returned to the U.S. as a Blu-ray release from new Vinegar Syndrome sublabel Cinématographe. The new 4K restoration from the 35mm interpositive also retains the correct 1.85:1 framing and improves in several respects, most obviously in detail and film grain resolution and especially contrast with the blown-out bright areas now looking far more controlled and legible. (See below for a couple of obvious examples.) The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English stereo track sounds excellent and faithful to the original Dolby Stereo mix, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. A new audio commentary by Alain Silver and filmmaker Christopher Coppola (Cage's brother) compares this film to Coppola's noir-inspired Deadfall made the same year with Cage and goes into the history of Propaganda before analyzing the various noir tropes of this and other '90s films like After Dark My Sweet, along with a quirky running joke about the significance (or lack thereof) of all the actors' blue eyes. The Scot Chestnut and Petros Patsilivas featurettes are ported over from the Umbrella release, while a new interview with John Dahl, "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere" (26m33s), covers his exposure to noir while studying at the AFI, the inspiration for the film's mistaken identity story, his own background that informed the setting, and the process of casting the film on a minimal budget and dealing with more than a few production challenges. Then in "Neon and Dust" (17m17s), Rick Dahl talks about his family's Montana background, his own fondness for spaghetti westerns, and the tag team nature of writing the script. A video essay by Chris O'Neill, "Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures" (13m46s), touches on some of the major neo-noir qualities and points out some of the significant story points that chart Michael's journey over the course of the film. The very elaborate deluxe packaging also comes with an insert book featuring new essays by Jourdain Searles, Keith Phipps, and Justin LaLiberty about early noir work, the film's place as the centerpiece of sorts, the recently reevaluated cycle of '90s crime films, and the conventions both honored and upended in this marvelous gem of a thriller.
Reviewed on February 9, 2024.