Kill Me Again (1989): John Dahl’s Impressive Noir Starring Val Kilmer

Many young directors are drawn to noir, but they tend to overheat rather than reinvent its conventions.  John Dahl may be the exception: No matter how complicated his plots are, he maintains a cool, restrained style.[i]  Dahl uses the quintessential noir themes of greed and lust without the Coens’ self-conscious knowingness and formal stylishness.

Dahl first became exposed to noir after moving to Los Angeles to attend the AFI.  “I watched Sunset Boulevard,” he recalled, “and realized that things I was driving past every day were all part of that movie.”[ii]  Committed as he is to noir, the “good boy” Montana-born director still worries about the reaction of his hometown minister when his darkly cynical movies play in Billings.

Dahl is not interested in a nostalgic evocation of noir.  In fact, his films are not situated in a shadowy L.A, the noir capital, but in the country side of Nevada or Wyoming, populated by hapless drifters with ordinary names like Lyle or Wayne.  His movies project the laconic tongue of the wide-open plains rather than the fast, nervous banter of city streets.  Red Rock West was set in a dour little Wyoming town, and Last Seduction in Upstate New York.

His first film, Kill Me Again (1989), staked his claim to “cowboy noir,” a genre exemplified by the Coens’ Blood Simple. Like Joel Coen, John Dahl has worked with his brother, Rick, and he has also used some of the Coens’ actors, such as J. T. Walsh.

A reworking of classic film noir, Kill Me Again is an offbeat tale of love, deception and murder. Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer), a seedy private detective is hired by Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Val’s real life wife), to help her fake her own death.  Rendering a scary performance, Michael Madsen is cast as her murderous lover (he will take this kind of role to an extreme in Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs). Fay’s scheme is to escape from her mob pursuers, whom she double-crossed stealing money she had been sent to pick up, and are now intent on killing her.

As scripter, Dahl weaves a complicated plot, with twists and turns and double-crosses as Fay and Jack race each other to escape the mobsters, who have found them.

Dahl’s second, and better feature, Red Rock West, was a quirky, low-budget “Western noir.”  With the assist of a fresh script, co-written with brother Rick, Dahl rounded up a quintessentially indie cast: Nicolas Cage (before he became star), Lara Flynn Boyle, J.T. Walsh–and the ubiquitous enfant terrible, Dennis Hopper.  Sizzling with taut suspense, Red Rock West is an intelligent thriller boasting eccentric performances and picaresque Southwest American sights.  Recalling Blood Simple and the small-town malevolence of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the film is an edgy trip into the dark side of the American heartland.

Michael Williams (Cage) drives into Wyoming eager to find a well-paying oil job.  When the rigging work, which was offered by an ex-marine buddy, falls through, he drives away unemployed and broke to Red Rock.  At the local bar, owner Wayne Brown (Walsh) mistakes Michael for Lyle, a Texas hitman he had hired to “take care” of his wife Suzanne (Boyle).  Before Michael realizes what’s happening, and with no intention of killing anyone, he has accepted a $500 down payment.  Driving to Wayne’s house, he warns Suzanne of the impending danger and she puts another $10,000 in his hand.

A bumbling ordinary guy, Michael is neither corrupt nor greedy but simply cursed with bad luck and bad timing.  A twisty tale of mistaken identities and hidden personalities follows, constantly shifting expectations to the point where the audience is not sure who’s to be trusted.  A series of incidents keep Michael in town, and the arrival of the actual hitman (Hopper) gets him more deeply involved in Wayne’s schemes.

With a wacky but resourceful fall guy (masterly played by Cage) at its center, Red Rock West’s script unfolds as a blend of greed, betrayal, and revenge.  The casting and music echo David Lynch, but Dahl provides a more conventional noir entertainment, proving that he is a strong actors’ director, able to get Dennis Hopper (in a caricature of America’s worst nightmare) and J.T. Walsh to modulate their natural flamboyance, though the usually placid Lara Flynn Boyle is miscast as a deceitful femme fatale.