(A must-see)

Directed by John Dahl

With Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, J.T. Walsh, and Lara Flynn Boyle

Like poor relations, films noirs have never gotten much respect. Eyed with suspicion by the studios that produced them and dismissed as a guilty pleasure by the public that viewed them, the films were only identified as a genre in the 50s by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema who loved them. Given this mark of approval, films by American directors like Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray became venerated abroad as they never had been on these shores.

Film noir coalesced in the years during and after World War II but it in no way remains bound to that period. Unfettered by the specificity of time that defines other genres like science fiction and the western, noir can comfortably be set in any period. Its defining qualities have more to do with a spirit of psychological ambivalence than with a particular time.

Its distinguishing physical characteristics, however, remain constant. Many of these qualities–decaying sets, high-contrast lighting, oblique and inventive camera angles–evolved not only by design but through necessity. Shot on the flimsy backlots of major studios or at smaller studios like Republic and Eagle, these films were achieved, as director Anthony Mann commented in reference to the ingenuity of his great cameraman John Alton, by “maximum performance with minimum means.” Alton himself admitted that the dramatic lighting schemes he devised were born of a need to hide the shabbiness of the sets. The highly expressionistic manner that developed was an inexpensive but effective form for depicting a dark and psychologically complex worldview through complicated and often criminal characters.

Although film noir has been upgraded somewhat in recent years, thanks in part to the mainstream success of noirish blockbusters like Body Heat and Blood Simple, its status remains that of a cousin from the wrong side of the tracks. Part of the problem may lie in the way those films actually fail to live up to the standards of the genre. Far more than the sum of a bunch of parts, a good film noir must delve deep into character and motivation to paint a convincing world of its own. Red Rock West, the second feature by Montana native John Dahl, manages to create such a world and give you a roller coaster of a ride through it. It nevertheless got a classic brush-off from its studio.

Despite a big-name cast it was originally released last year directly to cable. After garnering some favorable attention there it played at some of the European film festivals (where audiences tend to be less ambivalent about American pulp). Then in March Roxie Cinema, a small independent distribution company, put it out in a limited theatrical release, and it has been playing ever since. Quirky and offbeat, it has displayed a surprising degree of staying power.

Dahl’s film more than anything is an engrossing tale well-told. But like its noir antecedents, it is more than just a good crime film. What Dahl has been able to do–something that eluded the Coen brothers in Blood Simple and Lawrence Kasdan in Body Heat–is execute a story with all the noir accoutrements and at the same time create a convincing, sympathetic central character.

Even though the main players are in a sense archetypes, Dahl weaves in enough biographical information to make them well-rounded and believable as well. Nicolas Cage plays Michael, a dusty and bedraggled drifter who has driven to Wyoming from Texas hoping to secure work on an oil-drilling crew. But things don’t pan out–the foreman of the crew denies him the job his friend told him was a safe bet. In Michael, Dahl gives us a classic noir hero: through his attempt to be morally upstanding he sets off a chain of events that will lead him to compromise. Michael fails to get the job because he is honest enough to admit to an old leg injury. (The result of a marine posting in Lebanon, Michael’s injury is a clever nod to his 40s noir ancestors, many of them returning servicemen.) Now we’re on Michael’s side as, exhausted and broke, he moves on to the closest town to look for work. He pulls up to the local tavern, where the owner (J.T. Walsh at his slimy best) spots his Texas plates and mistakes him for a killer he’s hired to murder his wife. As soon as Michael catches on he confronts the wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) and, in a classic noir pivot, finds her willing to double the money to do in her husband. Displaying a moral ambivalence that will resurface later, Michael decides to notify the local sheriff, then take the money and run, double-crossing both of them.

Of course, Michael won’t be slipping out of Red Rock quite so easily. One of the grand tenets of the noir genre is that for every transgression there are unforeseen roadblocks to throw things out of whack (an existential nip and tuck that no doubt attracted the Cahiers critics in the first place). The real killer, played with strutting malevolence by Dennis Hopper, shows up, and the film has got you hooked, sliding into a series of gripping twists and turns.

Helping the story move along at a brisk clip is Dahl’s tight control of the editing coupled with a well-tuned ear for the rhythms and cadences of everyday conversation. Scenes hardly ever run on too long, and there is some exciting crosscutting toward the film’s denouement involving a fire and a jailbreak. The seasoned script is laden with droll and deadpan snatches of dialogue: trying to escape the killer hired by her husband, the wife frantically asks Michael what she should do. “If I were you, I’d ask for a divorce,” he answers dryly. Dahl displays few of the self-indulgent tendencies that might have marred this early film, none of the pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from the Coen brothers. In fact it may be this formal control that has lulled some critics into seeing this film as a routine genre exercise.

Dahl even gets two actors notorious for their unbridled hamminess to deliver remarkably restrained performances. Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper are two of Hollywood’s biggest scene-chewers, but their relatively low-key deliveries here enhance their characters and the story. Cage’s hangdog, not-quite-handsome face is ideal for displaying Michael’s ennui and moody indifference. And Hopper, though here he’s playing yet another deranged miscreant, a strutting bantam in cowboy boots, manages to convey his character through a believable pastiche of tics and twitches instead of his usual broad strokes.

The one false note in the casting is Lara Flynn Boyle. The success of some of the great noir femme fatales–Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai–hinged on the style and sophistication that seemed inextricably bound to their darker elements. Arch and preppy, Boyle possesses neither the slinkiness nor the venality her character requires.

Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky gives the film a handsome, burnished look. He uses an unusually high number of close-ups to lend the drama a sense of sweaty claustrophobia, while his control of light and shadow helps to heighten the characters’ psychological complexity. And William Olvis’s loping, steel-guitar-infused musical score hints at a sense of melancholy without being too obtrusive. With their help Dahl has made a good contemporary film noir–no easy task though something that may earn him little respect.