Dead for a Dollar was directed by Walter Hill (48 Hrs., The Warriors), written by Hill and Matt Harris (The Fritz Pollard Story, The Starling), and stars Christoph Waltz (Downsizing, Parole Chicago), Willem Dafoe (The Northman, Aquaman), Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Spies in Disguise), Warren Burke (Family Reunion, Bigger), Brandon Scott (13 Reasons Why, Mad Genius), Hamish Linklater (Ithaca, Gideon’s Crossing), and Benjamin Bratt (Coco, Law & Order). It’s about a bounty hunter who runs into an old mark dealing with the standoff that ensues while balancing his current task in a shifty town.
The Plot: A dedication to Budd Boetticher, director of many B-grade westerns of old, certifies the director’s own intentions: to rerun one of the handful of templates made iconic during the heyday of the genre, and try to do right by its standards. While not a complete success, the job gets done.
Pursuer and professional killer Max (Waltz) runs into previous target Joe (Dafoe) in prison, just to let him know to stay away once he gets out in the coming days. A few months pass as Max continues to take jobs, this time from a friend of the army and local businessman Martin (Linklater). His task: find Martin’s wife Rachel (Brosnahan) in Mexico and bring her back from the hands of Elijah (Scott), who allegedly abducted her, with the assistance of Martin’s man Poe (Burke).
The movie tries to pull off a story of unreliable characters, but with so many subplots involving multiple duos of characters, it all comes off as congested. Hill and Harris seem to know this and reveal the truth of the matter a mere 15 minutes in.
Once Max and Poe get to town, they run into more trouble in the form of Vargas (Bratt), who wants a cut of the cash before letting the men through, and the inevitable miscommunication comes from the use of a translator to work out the kinks. The writers do an okay job at moving the characters from place to place, staging confrontations, but are unable to propel the narrative to a compelling climax. All of the pieces are here, however, the slack attitude towards a grander picture and the minute aspirations of Dead for a Dollar undo the plot. It’s all function and too little form.
The Characters: Because so much time is spent introducing the people of the old west, the movie has at least a few good characters, even if it has just as many mediocre ones. Casting this roster resulted in a few problems too, as some of the actors just can’t reach a similar level of thespian talent as others.
Max is one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of guys that rarely has an opinion on any job’s ramifications to the world as a whole. He just wants his money and his peace. For this, he’s neglected to have a family or friends, only dealing with people who are assigned to tag along with him out of necessity – and he’s honest about that, among other things. Poe bounces back and forth nicely, with his spirited demeanour and nebulous intentions contrasting Max’s stoicism and straightforwardness.
Rachel and Elijah are generic runaways; the former from her husband and the latter from the army. Motivations for both decisions aren’t touched on beyond a few throwaway lines, making it hard to understand or root for either of them, which isn’t helped by the fact that Rachel is permanently antagonistic to the men that could put her down and claim the mission went wrong.
Joe is a solid antagonist since not much can be pinned on the man, and he just wants to be left alone to drink and gamble. A foil to Max, he’s more alike than either of them realize, although he takes significantly less backtalk than his arrester.
All of these participants should be recognizable to anyone who’s seen their fair share of westerns, but Max, Poe, and Joe are good additions to the canon, aided by the three performers playing them.
The Drama: Returning to the meat and potatoes of a particular genre works when there’s a core which binds everything together. Dead for a Dollar has a literal center in the form of the town where all the characters congregate, but only has convolution to keep them there.
While Max and Poe keep watch over Rachel (Elijah is in the presence of the local deputies), the script tries to grapple with the situations that the captives find themselves in. It’s not until the 50-minute mark that Rachel reveals the reason for her departure from Martin, and it’s all too predictable without much development for the elaboration to have a punch to it. The same thing happens during the handful of discussions between Poe and Elijah, who shared a unit in the army, but Hill and Harris again neglect to show or even insinuate what the conflict between them and their allegiances is about until the intrigue is gone.
In tandem with these scenes are ones that try to shake up discussions of ethics, mostly regarding Max’s commitment to the contracts he agrees to. Because Max’s character is written as a nonchalant workman who, while calm and content in seemingly every situation, don’t put too much stock into the motivations behind his profession, none of the pleadings of those around him make sense in breaking through to him. Some of these bargains do reach him, but it’s only thanks to Waltz’s performance that they feel organic.
As a helmer of nitty-gritty pictures, Hill is at his best when focusing on the raw outlaw theatrics instead of interpersonal woes. Thankfully, his latest does include his niche, as all of the parties converge on each other while individual attitudes change, allowing for all sorts of crosses and fights to occur before the runtime is over, partially making up for middling affairs.
The Technics: Westerns aren’t as in-demand as they once were, making the task of finding funds to make one with any level of scale beyond moderate a big order. Hill being the scrap master that he is, Dead for a Dollar comes out acceptably, though noticeably lacking in select areas.
Dialogue is something of a mixed bag here, with most conversations containing the appropriate amount of bluntness, aggravation, and partisanship (most scenes involving Max and Joe come to mind) but some seem out of place with terms that have only recently come into being spoken by characters that the writers want the audience to believe are currently living in the 1890s.
Looking like this time period takes a certain filming style. While the costumes, architecture, and colour grading certainly do the frontier justice (pun if you want it), the cinematography is a little too drab to sell the expanses of the southern states of the US and burgeoning cities of Mexico to feel authentic. Adding to the failings of the look of Dead for a Dollar is digital photography. Film costs money, which is understandably spent here, but even the addition of some more artificial grain would’ve sold everything more than how the final product does. It’s not bad but it leans more toward movie of the week than a Leone epic.
It’s not Hill’s finest hour or even his finest western, but for those who are in dire need of a new western that isn’t made on a micro-scale and without competence, Dead for a Dollar will unremarkably pass the time for a little bit of change.
Quiver Distribution has released Dead for a Dollar in theatres and on VOD and Digital platforms. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on October 4th. If you want to round up a few more westerns, FilmTagger has some suggestions.