A wry thriller with a keen edge, “Red Rock West” is a sprightly, likable noirish yarn with very definite specialized appeal. Already in release in the U.K. and Germany, the larkish indemnity piece received its North American launch at the Toronto Film Festival.
Centered on a case of mistaken identity, the internecine plot becomes progressively more complex without losing its sense of fun. Essentially a bumbler, Michael (Nicolas Cage) finds himself in a nest of vipers and only through dumb luck manages to elude getting bitten.
Michael has headed to the oil fields of Wyoming in his vintage Cadillac on the promise of a job. But an old knee injury sends him to the sidelines, and in the town of Red Rock he’s presumed to be a hired gun commissioned to rub out the wife of a local barkeep.
The saloon owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), wafts the long green in front of Michael’s nose, and the near destitute man takes a deep whiff. Playing along for a moment, he confronts the woman (Lara Flynn Boyle) only to have the original offer doubled. He grabs it but decides to bail out before things get worse.
Of course, nothing’s that easy.
After sending a note to the local sheriff, he heads out of town. As the rain beats on his windshield, Michael plows into a stranded motorist. When the police arrive things get mighty uncomfortable as the sheriff turns out to be Wayne. He’s taken into custody but manages to escape, only to be rescued by Lyle (Dennis Hopper), the gunman he’d been impersonating.
The ping-pong plot, concocted by writer-director John Dahl, is not to be taken seriously or metaphorically. Though it vaguely resembles a droll Bunuel construction, it owes more to hard-boiled thrillers of the 1940s, albeit with a very large tongue-in-cheek quotient.
Cage plays his dumb-guy role with aplomb. He’s virtually as thick-headedly resilient as a cartoon character but manages not to lose audience sympathy. Logically, he’s no match for the icy precision of Walsh or the hair-trigger temper evinced by Hopper. However, this is deeply rooted in movie reality.
Dahl, who earlier made the slick, steamy “Kill Me Again,” demonstrates an affection and understanding of the genre. His sense of the environment is shrewdly incorporated in the very handsomely mounted production. He also gets added texture from William Orvis’ clever, romantic music score.
Modest only in budget, the tightly constructed “Red Rock West” has upbeat prospects if it can secure the type of niche that propelled “One False Move” to cult status last year.