‘Dead for a Dollar’ Review: Walter Hill Captures the Best and Worst of Low-Budget Westerns

·5-min read
Quiver

This review originally ran Sept. 6, 2022, for the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

Maybe you can judge a film by its title. Consider “Dead for a Dollar:” It certainly sounds like a Western, doesn’t it? The “dollar” might call to mind some of the classics of the genre, while the “dead” at least promises a few good shoot-outs, a bit of bloody fun.

Only taken together, the name does have a somewhat frictionless quality — “timeless,” if you want to be generous, “generic” if you don’t. Which makes it so perfectly apt for Walter Hill’s perfectly perfunctory new film.

The fact that the filmmaker behind “48 Hrs.” and “The Warriors” will be honored with a career achievement prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival no doubt pushed his latest, low-budget Western towards such a tony debut, while the cast of Willem Dafoe and Christoph Waltz must have clearly sealed the deal. But for all that, “Dead for a Dollar” is decidedly not prestige fare, and it wears that distinction as a badge of pride.

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Hill dedicates his latest film to the Michelangelo of the two-bit oater, Budd Boetticher, and one can easily see why. Thrown together with whatever spare parts were lying around, reverse-engineered around gaps in the name-actors’ schedules and displaying a visual style that seemingly spared all expense, “Dead for a Dollar” is a proud heir to a longstanding lineage of low-budget westerns. Consider that a feature and a bug.

Though Waltz, Dafoe and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Rachel Brosnahan all get top billing; the fact that all share about the same amount of screen time as actor Luis Chávez might tell you something. Now don’t get me wrong, Chávez is a fine working actor with more than 20 years in the industry and 40 credits to his name; he’s also (tellingly) not a name on the poster, though he was certainly on set as much as anyone else.

That this is a film of compromise and convenience — accepting the probably three days that Benjamin Bratt had to spare and swapping in an inexpensive proxy for other scenes — is not a rap against the project; all films are made of compromise and convenience. Only here, the seams really do show. As to the plot, well, best focus on the broad strokes as it sends three rival parties careening towards a climactic  — and thrillingly orchestrated — shoot-out in a Podunk Mexican town.

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Standing for Good, we have bounty hunter Max Borlund (a stoic Waltz) and his army-supplied second gun, Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke). Both have been sent south of the border to retrieve Rachel Price (Brosnahan), an all-American bride kidnapped by the errant Buffalo Soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). There’s the bad: the Mexican warlord Tiberio Vargas (Bratt) and the dangerous men who his bidding, including but not limited to Mr. Chávez himself. And of course, we have Ugly, here in the guise of a card-shark wild card named Joe Cribbens, played hammy-with-a-side-of-beans by Dafoe.

Notice that the so-called kidnapper does not figure among the Bad, and you’ll catch one of the few modernized elements of the script written by Hill and Matt Harris. If the film remains too indelibly a throwback to be called anything like revisionist, Hill does try to weave in a more diversified set of perspectives, opening up the stage to Poe and Jones (Black soldiers serving a country that doesn’t see them as full citizens) and to Rachel, an independent woman in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with that.

Only neither does the film, and for all these feints of inclusion, “Dead for a Dollar” makes no attempt to actually engage with or to dramatize these conflicts. Instead, the characters exist as floating signifiers, stand-ins, the promise of an idea rather than the idea itself.

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Somehow the only character that escapes this is the one who speaks least. Playing the kind of unhurried and self-contained no-bulls–t-artist that was Bruce Willis’ stock and trade before his retirement, Waltz trades in his urbane screen presence for a more stoic gunslinger archetype that doesn’t quite fit him as well. Which might very much be the point, as in an early scene where he shuts down a line of questions as to his character’s vaguely European accent (Swedish? Dutch? German?) with the perfect retort. “I’m American,” he says.

Onscreen for that perfect reply is a breathtaking shot: Waltz and Burke on horseback, the camera a half-mile from the actors, showing the two figures galloping across an endless horizon. There are a number of such shots in the film, and all of them are ravishing. Thing is, you can probably count them all on two hands — with a few fingers to spare. The classically blocked finale reflects a similar impulse, because Hill was clearly drawn to this project for the chance to evoke the mythic iconography of the old-school western. Mission accomplished, but only altogether 10 minutes of screen time.

Everything in between can’t help but feel like filler, made all the more noticeable by a flatly lit, shallow-focus visual scheme for all the scene-setting exposition. You can quite literally feel the director’s own impatience emanating off the screen, made all the more acute by clipped performance styles and rushed editing patterns that cut each and every scene a beat earlier than feels natural. As if the film’s director, like the film’s target audience, are speaking in unison: Get to the action, show me a vista, give me the goods. On that, both Hill and his film deliver, but with so much dead air in between as to deflate the power of the odd moments of elation.

“Dead for a Dollar” is a bet, paid for with 90% of screen time, for 10% of poetry. And that bet could very well pay off, especially once the film leaves Venice, closes its theatrical window, and finds its natural cowboy home on the green, eternal range of Dad-Movie DTV.

“Dead for a Dollar” will be released in U.S. theaters and on-demand Sept. 30 via Quiver Distribution.