Great Films You Need To See – Red Rock West (1993)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about John Dahl’s 1993 western neo noir thriller Red Rock West was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Cinema’s dustbin is littered with movies that disappeared between the cracks or didn’t fit neatly into any easy-to-sell marketing category.

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

It’s a fate that befell the criminally underseen Red Rock West, John Dahl’s sophomore feature that, according to the late Roger Ebert, “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy”.

The film is worth seeing for the cast alone. Nicolas Cage gives one of his most hangdog turns as Michael Williams, an ordinary Joe on the road to nowhere who rolls into dead-end Red Rock and is immediately mistaken for “Lyle from Dallas” by bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh).

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he's "Lyle from Dallas" in Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he’s “Lyle from Dallas” in Red Rock West

Down on his luck, Michael keeps his mouth shut when he accepts $5,000 by Wayne to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). He’s then offered double by Suzanne to kill Wayne after telling her about the contract. The plot takes a turn for the perilous with the arrival of the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic hitman who dresses like he stepped out of a Garth Brooks concert.

Dahl, who co-wrote the script with brother Rick, throws in more twists than a pretzel factory and has a ball in the process. There’s an amusing running joke that sees the exasperated Michael continually trying to leave Red Rock but, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, is seemingly never able to escape.

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne's wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

There’s more than a little of David Lynch in the film, and not just because three-quarters of the main cast have worked with him. Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode, while Boyle exudes the sort of old school matinee seduction she displayed in Twin Peaks.

In a film of meaty performances, the tastiest is given by Walsh (who should have appeared in a Lynch film, but never did). In lesser hands Wayne could have been a stock villain, but Walsh imbues him with a banality that is all the more chilling for being so underplayed.

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dahl is one of life’s nearly men. Now predominately a director of high-end cable and network TV shows, his film career never garnered the commercial success it was due in spite of such entertaining fare as The Last Seduction and Rounders, the Matt Damon and Edward Norton joint that helped launch the current poker craze.

Released in the wake of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Red Rock West became a casualty of the rapidly changing landscape of American independent cinema post-Tarantino. Watched now, more than 20 years on, the film has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs.

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Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

The landscape of American film has changed considerably in the 30 years since Joel and Ethan Coen announced themselves with their blackly comic neo-noir debut Blood Simple.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melacholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

Once dismissively bracketed as ‘arthouse’, the Coens are among a handful of gifted filmmakers to have transformed the cinematic panorama without compromising their unique sensibility; to the extent their bleakly violent 2007 masterpiece No Country For Old Men won Best Film and Best Director Oscars and made a ton of money at the box office to boot.

With this, their 16th film, the Coens almost out-Coen themselves with a Russian doll of a movie that’s as enigmatic as it is engrossing.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

The roster of seemingly cursed characters with a leaning towards self-destruction is a growing one in the Coens’ filmography and Llewyn Davis’ tractionless folk musician is right up there with Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Ed Crane Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is, like the songs he plays, “never new and never gets old” and spends his days drifting around New York’s early-60s Greenwich Village playing the odd gig and relying on the generosity of friends for a place to lay his head. You get the sense things have been this way since his former musical partner Mike committed suicide a few years earlier, while his only solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, has fallen through the critical and commercial cracks.

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

His inertia has left him bitter, despite (or because of) it being almost entirely his own fault. Llewyn simply can’t fathom how or why the folk-by-numbers tunes of the innocuous Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) “connect with people” and can’t hide his derision when playing session guitar on the inane folk-pop pap Please Mr Kennedy (the film’s standout hilarious scene) written by his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Jim and Llewyn’s ex-flame, the perennially angry Jean (Carey Mulligan), are also starting to make waves on the folk scene as a duet – another sign that he’s being left behind.

Opportunities present themselves, but Llewyn has a compulsion to snatch defeat from the jaws of something more prosperous. An audition for respected Chicago producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) comes to naught when, instead of playing something catchy, Llewyn instead chooses the sombre ballad The Death Of Queen Jane. Grossman’s pithy summation “I don’t see a lot of money here” firstly reminds us why it’s called the music business, and secondly underscores the fact Llewyn’s always going to be a square box trying to fit in a round hole.

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens’ very best films open themselves up to multiple interpretations and Inside Llewyn Davis is no different. For me, the oppressive sense of death hangs over the film like a shroud, to the extent that it could be argued the world we see Llewyn wandering around is some kind of purgatory.

Bruno Delbonnel’s chilly cinematography lends the film a ghostly pallor, while the eerie road trip Llewyn takes with beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and obnoxious Dr John-alike jazz muso Roland Turner (the one and only John Goodman) from New York to Chicago is like something out of a supernatural nightmare, with ominous-sounding vehicles screeching past their car.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can't seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can’t seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Furthermore, the cat(s) that Llewyn cannot seem to escape from have long been regarded as a symbol of death, while the fact one of the cats is called Ulysses could be a reference to Tennyson’s celebrated poem of the same name (rather than James Joyce’s novel) about a man with the spectre of death hanging over him.

The songs Llewyn performs are also soaked in morbidity, from The Death Of Queen Jane, to Hang Me Oh Hang Me (“wouldn’t mind the hangin… but the layin in the grave so long”), while the film’s elliptical structure could be seen as purgatorial. Mind you, it just as easily be about a poor schmuck living day-to-day and who gets saddled with a cat. That’s the Coens for you.

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Isaac gives a superlative performance as the downtrodden Llewyn, a curious figure who’s his own worst enemy but somehow illicits our sympathy. There’s something both maddening and admirable about his bloody-mindedness.

The Coens have been accused in the past of being unsympathetic towards their characters and it’s a charge that’s been levelled at Llewyn Davis. This is to miss the point, however. Llewyn is flawed, of that there is no doubt, but Isaac injects the character with real pathos.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens.