“Dead for a Dollar” is Walter Hill’s return to the pure Western since 2006’s excellent “Broken Trail” and his first time directing a feature film since 2016’s under-promoted “The Assignment”.
At 80 years old, Hill is rightfully considered one of the great action filmmakers, crafting many genre hits (“The Warriors”, “48 Hrs.”, “Red Heat”) that were well received by both audiences and critics.
Hill is a true artist who infuses every picture with old school style and respect for the craft. The filmmaker is often praised, widely respected, yet still somewhat under appreciated.
Hill’s love, knowledge, and respect of the Western genre shows in every film he captains. The director has stated how he feels all his films are essentially Westerns and his contributions to the genre proper (“The Long Riders”, “Geronimo: An American Legend”, “Wild Bill”, “Broken Trail” and the pilot episode for HBO’s “Deadwood”) are gritty and unique creations.
The director’s latest is a tribute to the films of director Budd Boetticher (a big influence on Hill’s career), who made artful “B” Westerns starring Randolph Scott that became classics of the 1950s. As did Boetticher before him, Hill takes a well-worn story and makes it seem fresh.
Willem Dafoe is Joe Cribbens an outlaw who is preparing to leave the territorial New Mexican jail after a five-year stretch. Christoph Waltz plays bounty hunter Max Borlund, the man who captured Cribbens.
Joe want his revenge and on the day before his release, receives a visit from Max who warns him to stay away. The moment is expertly acted and directed with a heady macho tone, as the two men have their conversation about their respective fates.
Dafoe and Waltz have long been two of the most gifted character actors of their generations and go at this scene with a patience and quiet that masks the rage inside Joe and the dread within Max. You can feel the two actors’ mutual joy sinking their teeth into roles that would’ve been played by Randolph Scott and Richards Boone or Widmark.
The dialogue in this moment and throughout the film entire is extremely well written. Hill penned the screenplay while co-creating the story with Matt Harris. Many great Western moments and interesting characters are held within.
Borlund is hired by smarmy Martin Kidd (a very good Hamish Linklater) to track down military deserter Elijah Jones who, according to Mr. Kidd, has taken his wife Rachel hostage and is demanding a ransom.
To assist the bounty Hunter, the Army unofficially assigns Poe (a solid Warren Burke) to join him. Poe is a damn sharp marksman and a friend of Jones, as the two served together as “Buffalo Soldiers”.
Borland knows something is not on the up and up, as Jones is a Black man and Rachel is a white woman, but takes Kidd at his word, accepting the job.
The truth comes out that Rachel suffers as an abused wife and has run away with Jones to seek the money to get them to Cuba, or anywhere far away from her husband.
As Elijah Jones, Brandon Scott is fine, but isn’t given enough time for us to care about him beyond how he is misrepresented and mistreated by everyone.
Rachel Brosnahan works well as Kidd’s wife. At first, the actress’ turn could be misconstrued as flat. By mid-film, the truth of how the character is finding her strength in a world of men shines a better light on Brosnahan’s work, helping the audience realize how strong the performance truly is.
Add to the mix the deadly land baron Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt) and a Mexican police captain (Fidel Gomez) whose allegiances are tested, and the small town becomes the place where everyone’s fates will be decided.
The film gets off to a decent start with the scene between Dafoe and Waltz but has a tough time with the introduction of its many characters. It was impossible to stay with one person’s story too long and the first thirty minutes feel a bit patched together.
Once the story gets moving, the film finds a steady road to travel.
In this age of studios big and small doing everything they can to cut costs, the film’s digital blood and bullet holes are a letdown. Walter Hill is known for shooting violence with a balletic, slow-motion style learned from studying one of his cinematic idols, Sam Peckinpah. For this film, the violence is strong, but its impact is softened without the director’s signature approach.
The same can be said for the film’s score. The absence of Hill’s frequent collaborator, Ry Cooder, is sorely missed. Cooder is a musician who is completely in tune with the sounds and musical stylings of a certain time and region and his scores for “The Long Riders” and “Geronimo: An American Legend” (as well as Hill’s swamp-set military thriller “Southern Comfort”) played a large part in creating the pulse of those films.
Xander Rodzinski’s score feels lackluster and isn’t strong enough to color the dramatic thrust of a gritty Western. His music queues are clunky, with most of his work existing as nothing more than a pedestrian attempt at mimicking a mixture of Ennio Morricone and Dimitri Tiomkin’s work in the Western genre. Save for a beautifully sung Mexican number, the music fails to live up to the Walter Hill atmosphere.
Visually, Lloyd Ahern II’s cinematography is quite efficient and gives the film its proper look of people and places bathed in the sun and dust of the Old West.
The true pleasure of the film is Hill’s skill as a storyteller. This is a good tale, and the filmmaker guides his characters through the sunburnt New Mexico landscapes, as their lives are tested by every life-or-death decision that comes faster as the plot unfolds.
Colored with horses and dust, stagecoaches and sidearms, whiskey and bullets, and antiheroes and bad men, “Dead for a Dollar” is an entertaining, old-fashioned, oater from a man who knows how to make ‘em.
Dead For A Dollar
Written & Directed by Walter Hill
Starring Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, Warren Burke, Brandon Scott, Hamish Linklater, Benjamin Bratt
R, 107 Minutes, Polaris Pictures/Quiver Distrobution