Reserved Montanan John Dahl gravitated toward cinematic stories that bore little resemblance to his peaceful roots and made a name for himself as a superb neo-noir director in the 1990s.
Raised in Billings, MT, where his youth included a stint as a Boy Scout with his father as his Scout leader, Dahl studied music at the University of Montana before switching to film at Montana State. Dahl subsequently moved to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute. Entering the movie industry however he could, Dahl directed music videos and did storyboard art for Jonathan Demme before he finally got a break when his script P.I.: Private Investigations (1987) was made into a TV movie.
Dahl moved to feature direction with the independent crime movie and his first neo-noir Kill Me Again (1989). Written by Dahl as well, Kill Me Again starred Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as a Mob-scamming femme fatale who cuts a swath through the West, becoming a homage to (and a clever send up of) the 1940s Spider Woman legacy. Dahl hit his creative stride with his next film, Red Rock West (1992). Another dusty Western/noir tale of double-crossing, murder, and adultery, Red Rock West showcased Dahl's eye for atmospheric visuals and sharp sense of humor about the genre. Though Nicolas Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle play the patsy and the lethal seductress to a T, suitably twisted Dennis Hopper particularly stood out as hired killer Lyle From Dallas. Consigned to a cable TV debut by its faithless backers, Red Rock West was rescued by a small San Francisco distributor and it became a breakthrough art house hit for Dahl. Dahl returned to the neo-noir well again with The Last Seduction (1994), this time setting a Double Indemnity-style vamp on the loose in New York City and state. Anchored by Linda Fiorentino's ferociously sexy and funny career performance as the most fatale of femmes, The Last Seduction followed the same route to theatrical success via cable TV, making Fiorentino infamously ineligible for a deserved Oscar nomination.
After suffering a box-office and critical rejection with his science fiction yarn Unforgettable (1996), Dahl returned to the underworld with Rounders (1998), a sleekly shot character study set against New York's private poker clubs and card sharks. Rounders' Mean Streets-esque friendship between law student Matt Damon and self-destructive Edward Norton provided moments of interesting buddy drama (even more interesting than co-star John Malkovich's "Russian" accent) and earned kudos for Norton. Dahl's next foray into noir territory, Joy Ride (2001), however, eschewed in-depth character examination for movie-wise dark highway thrills as two guys and a girl get into deep trouble when the guys play a practical joke on the wrong trucker. Though the film failed to make waves at the box office, critics once again praised Dahl's knack for economical, unironic genre-based filmmaking.