Release Date(s)1993 (January 30, 2024)
Studio(s)Propaganda Films/PolyGram (Cinématographe/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
While Quentin Tarantino was busy during the Nineties leading the new wave of postmodernist thrillers that grew to dominate the decade, and making a lot of noise in the process, John Dahl was off in his own cinematic corner quietly crafting homages to the classic film noir of yore. Tarantino was a movie junkie who pulled bits and pieces from everything that he loved and mashed them together into a new synthesis, but Dahl was an ardent fan of classic noir turned neo-noir filmmaker. He chose to work within the familiar boundaries of the genre instead of maintaining ironic distance from it. While there are still plenty of ironies in his work, it’s the irony that was already inherent to the genre, not a mockingly postmodernist one. That was swimming against the tide during the Nineties, and combined with the fact that Dahl lacked Tarantino’s knack for shameless self-promotion, his films generally failed to find a theatrical audience. On the other hand, Dahl ended up benefiting from the growth of the home video market, so his 1993 effort Red Rock West was able to gain cult movie glory in its own way. It ended up largely going straight to video, but it still found new life in the format.
Dahl’s script for Red Rock West falls comfortably into the basic noir situation of a hapless man drawn into circumstances that are way over his head. Nicolas Cage plays Michael Williams, a drifter who struggles to find work on the oil fields thanks to having a bum knee. On his way to find new opportunity in Wyoming, a chance encounter with Wayne (J.T. Walsh) results in him being mistaken for an out-of-town hitman. Wayne offers Michael a stack of cash to bump off his unfaithful wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), so the penniless Michael takes the money, warns Suzanne that her life is in danger, and tries to get the hell out of Dodge. Yet a couple more chance encounters along the way result in his fortunes inevitably taking a turn for the worse. Red Rock West also stars Dennis Hopper, Timothy Carhart, Dan Shor, and Dwight Yoakam (who also contributed the song 1,000 Miles from Nowhere to the soundtrack).
The noir trope of having a gullible man getting in over his head usually requires some sort of a femme fatale to lead him there, but Dahl played around with that idea in Red Rock West. Michael is a desperate individual who lets himself get drawn in by the lure of taking easy money from bad people, not necessarily by feminine wiles. By the time that Suzanne becomes a major factor in the shenanigans, Michael is already in far too deep. If anything, he sees Suzanne as a possible way out. It’s also not immediately clear whether or not she’s even a femme fatale in the first place.
Dahl’s script offers plenty of twists and turns before that central question is resolved, which is both a strength and a weakness in Red Rock West. The narrative is a house of cards that requires every piece to fall in place at the right time and in the right place, and it takes a few too many coincidences to make that happen. If just one of the participants didn’t magically show up exactly when and where they needed to, the entire plot would unravel. It’s all a bit of a stretch that requires some suspension of disbelief, but that’s not necessarily an issue with a neo-noir like this. After all, neither Howard Hawks nor Raymond Chandler could figure out who actually killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and that didn’t hurt the 1946 film version in the slightest. Noir is all about mood, not necessarily ironclad plotting. Red Rock West works best if you think of it as a noir tone poem and don’t worry about the details that may or may not add up. Viewed from that angle, it’s an effective little thriller.
Cinematographer Mark Reshovsky shot Red Rock West on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its limited theatrical release (most audiences ended up seeing it at full frame 1.33:1 on VHS). This version is based on a 4K scan of the 35 mm interpositive, with digital restoration and grading supervised by Ryan Emerson at Vinegar Syndrome. There’s no significant damage on display, with just some very faint speckling and a few small bits of debris remaining. Most of that is of the single-frame variety, so it won’t even be noticeable unless you happen to be looking at the right part of the frame at the right time. (That’s oddly appropriate given the nature of the story in Red Rock West.) The closing credits do suffer from some instability, but that’s not much of an issue with the film itself. The grain is a little coarser than it would have been if the original negative had been available, but it’s not too obtrusive and the healthy encode manages it well, even against the cloudy skies (which is one area where subpar encodes often break down). The contrast range is excellent, and while there’s not always a ton of detail in the darkest corners of the image, that’s to be expected given that an IP was the source. The colors look accurate, with natural flesh tones. It’s a nicely filmic presentation of Red Rock West, especially when viewed via projection. It really looks like watching a high-quality 35 mm print in the theatre, which is ironic considering that most people’s first experience with it was on VHS instead.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Red Rock West was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel mix matrix encoded into two. The surrounds are mostly used for environmental sounds and other ambient effects like rain or insects, but they do get a bit more active during the thunderstorm and in the scenes involving trains. Otherwise, the mix is mostly focused on the front channels. The dialogue is clear, and the somewhat bluesy score by William Olvis has some real depth to it.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of Red Rock West is under their new Cinématographe sub-label, which has a mission statement to “explore the wide breadth of American moviemaking, spanning numerous genres and scales of production,” all under the watchful eye of Vinegar Syndrome’s Justin LaLiberty. It’s currently available in a Limited Edition of 6,000 copies. The disc itself is contained in a simple but striking clothbound mediabook with essays by Justin LaLiberty, Keith Phipps, and Jourdain Searles. The mediabook is housed in a J-card slipcase with a ribbon to help remove the book (a nice touch). The new artwork is by Sean Phillips, and the overall package design was by Haunt Love. Hat’s off to everybody involved with this one.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Alan Silver and Christopher Coppola
- John Dahl: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere (HD – 26:33)
- Rick Dahl: Neon and Dust (HD – 17:17)
- Interview with Editor Scott Chestnut (Upscaled SD – 21:48)
- Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures (HD – 13:46)
- Video Essay by Petros Patsilivas (HD – 9:19)
The new commentary pairs producer and film noir scholar Alan Silver with director Christopher Coppola, who directed his brother Nicolas Cage in Deadfall shortly before Red Rock West was released. While they do discuss a few production details like the budget and the history of Propaganda Films, they’re mostly here to offer analysis. They discuss the nature of neo-noir relative to the genre that inspired it, examine the style of Red Rock West and its use of humor, and spend a lot of time on the ambiguous nature of the main character. Clearly, he has skills that go beyond being a mere drifter, but he still displays a basic decency. He’s willing to swindle people who deserve it, but he can’t stop doing the right thing in other circumstances, which proves to be his undoing (although it does play out in an interesting way during the ending on the train).
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere is a new interview with John Dahl, who fills in the gaps about the making of Red Rock West. He talks about how his love of film noir began with a screening of Double Indemnity, but he actually borrowed a few key plot details from an unexpected western source instead. He spends some time on the rest of the writing process before moving on to his experiences shooting the film, including some interesting moments with the actors and stunt people. Unfortunately, there are a few audio issues in this featurette, including level changes and even complete dropouts. It’s mostly clear enough, however. Neon and Dust provides the flip side of the writing process with Rick Dahl, who offers a different angle on how the two brothers ended up putting the story together. He says that they weren’t so much trying to come up with all of the twists and coincidences as they were just spitballing different ideas that all ended up in the final script. The new extras are rounded out with Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures, a video essay by Chris O’Neill. O’Neill discusses the way that Dahl’s three neo-noir during the Nineties parallel each other, with Red Rock West landing in the middle in terms of how it walks a fine line between credibility and absurdity. (That’s actually a pretty good way to describe the film as a whole.) O’Neill then breaks down the structure and story of Red Rock West.
The last two extras were ported over from the 2022 Region B Blu-ray from Plan B Entertainment in the U.K. The Interview with Scott Chesnut has the editor explaining his history with John Dahl going back to their music video days, and making the move from cutting on tape to cutting on film for Red Rock West. He admits to making a few mistakes like not leaving enough extra footage for the reel changeovers, which resulted in a key shot going unseen when it was projected. Finally, the Video Essay by Petros Patsilivas is an homage to Nicolas Cage’s performance in the film. Patsilivas says that Cage displayed a James Dean level of cool in Red Rock West, with the whole film being a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em where Cage doesn’t know what cards that his opponents are holding. Patsilivas also points out the way that Cage uses small moments to build the character.
Missing here from the Plan B disc is a different interview with John Dahl and an interview with Dale Gibson. Umbrella Entertainment in Australia also released a Blu-ray of Red Rock West in 2023 that carried forward all of the Plan B extras and added a video essay by John Harrison about the late great J.T. Walsh, a new commentary with Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital, and a collection of trailers for various John Dahl films. The Plan B and the Umbrella discs also included the old DVD commentary track featuring both of the Dahls joined by Scott Chesnut, but that hasn’t been included here. So as usual, if you own either of those discs, you’ll probably want to hang onto them for the missing extras. In all other respects, this new Cinématographe release is as definitive as it can get. The picture quality has the edge over the others, and the packaging is as good as it gets. These days, when elaborate sets tend to be stuffed with art cards and other trinkets that most purchasers will look at once and then forget, it’s nice to see the packaging itself holding center stage. Simple but eye-catching, which is perfect for a film like Red Rock West.
- Stephen Bjork