The legendary director teams with Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe for a thoughtful, superbly crafted western.
With the exception of Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill is the contemporary filmmaker most closely associated with what was once the most American of film genres, the Western. They’ve been in relatively short supply for the last 50-odd years, but with projects like The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill, Broken Trail, and the pilot episode of Deadwood (not to mention modern-set takes on the form like Extreme Prejudice and Last Man Standing), Hill’s been doing what he can to keep the form and its traditions alive. His latest, Dead for a Dollar (his first film in six years), is unlikely to spur a revival anytime soon and its bypassing of theaters for a VOD release all but ensures that it will be overlooked by all but his most dedicated fans. The good news is that those fans—and any others who should come across it—will be rewarded with a sturdy, entertaining work that overcomes its occasionally apparent budget constraints to serve as a welcome reminder that Hill remains one of the most fascinating genre filmmakers of our time.
Set in 1897, the film stars Christoph Waltz as Max Borlund, a bounty hunter who is very good at his job and lives by a personal code that he will not break for any price. For his latest assignment, he has been hired by Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater), a wealthy businessman with political ambitions. Borlund is to track down and safely return Kidd’s wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who has apparently been kidnapped by Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), a deserter Buffalo Soldier demanding a $10,000 ransom for her return. Joined by another Buffalo Soldier named Poe (Warren Burke), Borlund sets off in pursuit of the two across the border into Mexico and manages to find them relatively quickly—only to learn from Rachel that there is a lot more to the story than he’s been told. With these new cards on the table, Borlund must decide how to proceed.
Borlund’s decision is not a complicated one, but there are additional factors that make things more difficult for him. While waiting for Kidd to arrive, the group winds up in a small town under the control of vicious crime boss Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt), who has already inserted himself into Elijah and Rachel’s situation and will not abide losing out because of Borlund’s arrival. Furthermore, another recent arrival to town turns out to be an old enemy of Borlund’s—Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), a bank robber and card sharp recently released from prison and still nursing a murderous grudge against the man who landed him in jail. It’s a grudge Vargas hopes to use to his advantage.
Modern Westerns mostly fall into one of two camps—some are simple, straightforward narratives (like Kevin Costner’s underrated Open Range), and most are of the revisionist variety that offer critiques of the questionable tropes that the genre indulged in during its heyday. Hill’s screenplay offers an intriguing blend of the two approaches. Although perhaps a bit talkier than the usual low-budget oater, Dead for a Dollar still contains enough of the usual trappings to satisfy fans of the format, culminating in a climactic gunfight put together with a formal grace and precision that puts many recent blockbusters’ big set pieces to shame. At the same time, Hill’s narrative intriguingly delves into racial and gender issues by giving voice and agency to characters too often ignored or overlooked during the genre’s heyday.
Waltz’s performance here will no doubt be compared to his turn in Django Unchained. This time around, he’s playing a more taciturn, more complicated character very effectively—the moment where he responds to Poe’s questioning his accent with a simple “I’m an American” is a perfect moment, one that reveals everything necessary to know Max Borlund. Dafoe, by contrast, is clearly and cheerfully chewing the scenery throughout—while adding enough shading to his character that his loyalties at any given moment are never 100% certain. Brosnahan, Scott, and Burke are also quite good, but the real scene-stealer is Luis Chavez, who’s brilliant as Vargas’s educated factotum and go-between.
Dead for a Dollar was clearly made on a fairly paltry budget and there are a few ragged edges here and there that might disappoint those hoping for some more visual sweep to the material. However, Hill (much like Budd Boetticher, the celebrated B-movie director to whom the film is dedicated) knows how to make the most of his limited resources. The result is a smart, exciting, provocative western Dead for a Dollar is both one of the best films of the year and Hill’s most consistently entertaining big-screen effort since his inspired 2002 prison drama Undisputed. Anyone with even the slightest interest in either Hill or the Westerns owes it to themselves to seek it out.
Hunt down Dead for a Dollar on VOD on September 30th, 2022.