Walter Hill is back in the saddle, courtesy of “Dead for a Dollar.”
The action auteur behind “The Long Riders,” “Wild Bill” and “Geronimo: An American Legend” returns to his beloved genre. And he’s got some serious creative firepower on his side, including Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe.
“Dead” is no instant classic. The stakes are too low, and screenplay hiccups drain some of the story’s inherent tension. Still, the gritty morals behind the tale, and some slick gunplay from the 80-year-old auteur, make it a solid genre entry.
Waltz stars as Max Borlund, a bounty hunter tasked with rescuing a woman from the clutches of a fiendish black deserter.
Or so Max is told.
In reality, Rachel (“Mrs. Maisel” herself, Rachel Brosnahan) ran off with Elijah (Brandon Scott), her former student, to escape her abusive spouse.
That doesn’t matter to Max. He’s got an assignment to complete, and that’s just what he’ll do. It won’t be easy, though. His path crosses that of a Mexican kingpin (Benjamin Bratt, chilling but in too few scenes) along with an old nemesis.
That’s Dafoe as Joe Cribbens, a life-long criminal who’s gunslinging skills are second to none. Dafoe is having a blast without gnawing on the scenery, a performance that highlights the stilted nature of his colleagues.
Hill ensures this western snapshot is staid, even formalized, down to the stoic line readings. Even the film’s color palette hearkens back to the past, with sepia tones that make it look as if “Dead for a Dollar” hit theaters in the 1960s, not today.
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If you can’t guess where all of this is headed, then you’ve never seen a western. Still, formula never stopped a movie from achieving lift-off. After a pedestrian start, “Dead” finds its rhythm.
Max’s inner conflict simmers the more he learns about Rachel’s plight. And he’s similarly torn about Elijah’s fate, knowing he has the power to intervene but not without repercussions.
Modern filmmaking creeps into Hill’s legendary vision. Frontier women can be as brave, and empowered, as the men of the era. “Terror on the Prairie” expertly proved just that.
Brosnahan’s Rachel still feels ripped from the 21st century.
The story’s racial element also feels clipped so as not to offend. Elijah’s race, and that of Max’s partner-in-crime Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke), rarely draw attention.
That’s the color blind world we all crave, but in a period western we’d likely hear plenty of vile “n-words” dropped.
Once again, a modern film threatens period accuracy to avoid triggering woke viewers.
NOTE: Hill told the press he made “Dead for a Dollar” for modern times.
“I thought it should have some modern relevance, so it was kind of bifurcated or self-contradictory if you will.”
More upsetting is Elijah’s lack of screen time. He’s a pivotal player here, at least on paper. Yet we never get to know him. He lacks both screen time and chemistry with Rachel.
Hill’s missteps aside, the Hollywood pro leads us to the third act confrontation we crave. Plus, a spirited whip duel prior to the fireworks suggests Hill still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
So does the classic western yarn.
HiT or Miss: Walter Hill’s “Dead for a Dollar” is a sturdy, if unremarkable oater in the grand tradition.