Overstated, but still somehow a hangout movie, Walter Hill’s new western is heightened by its moral dilemmas.
Let Walter Hill transport you to the Wild West and 1897-style diplomacy, where differences are spotted with decks of cards and whips and people have itchy powder all over their trigger fingers. Shooting someone is presented as a way of resolving an argument in this world. References to guns are made with such regularity that it’s unclear whether this is a pure western or a knockoff. The dialogue usually develops like this. Sneering jerk: “Who are you?” Funny do-gooder, “I’m the guy with the gun!”
That’s Dead for a Dollar for you. One of the main guys with a gun is the famous bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz), who was hired by the wealthy Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater) to find his teacher wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) after she disappeared with the black student Elijah (Brandon Scott). The way Martin tells it, Elijah kidnapped Rachel. But instead, what we see of the duo making their way across the desert from America to Mexico shows they’re romantically involved and on the run together. We know this, but the bounty hunter doesn’t, although a helpful coincidence is at hand. Sergeant Amos Poe (Warren Burke) accompanies Max because he knows Elijah from serving in the US Army and he is convinced his old friend is not a kidnapper.
If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of backstory,” you haven’t seen anything. Enter the outlaw fabulously named Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), who is determined to settle a score with Borlund that landed him in prison for five years. There’s also the fearsome Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt), a cigar-chomping Mexican overlord who has a habit of riding out armed heavyweights to threaten anyone who shows up on his turf in Pueblo De Guadeloupe. This is where all the characters converge and have to make quick decisions about where their allegiances lie.
Max and Rachel’s relationship is the basis of the moral questions that Dead for a Dollar seeks to explore. Max and Amos find the runaways soon enough, and it’s a matter of whether Max lives up to the terms of his job with a $5,000 bounty on his head, or whether he sides with Rachel. “Martin Kidd is not only a bad person, he’s also a very bad person,” she tells Max, whose main characteristic is that he likes the truth and dislikes lies. The revelation that Martin lied about Elijah kidnapping Rachel raises doubts.
Unfortunately for the film, the normally unflappable Christoph Waltz sleeps at the wheel and calls in a performance all the lesser than his earlier searing portrayals of a literal bounty hunter in Django Unchained and a Nazi twist in Inglorious Basterds. .” Rachel Brosnahan seems to belong in a different film altogether, with her combination of feminine delicacy and flashing defiance reminiscent of Edith Wharton heroines. Brosnahan is certainly doing something with a script that literally expresses her motivations until there’s nothing left to convey nonverbally. She serves up extra chutzpah with every gesture, but while Waltz is busy fading into the scene, there’s no one to ricochet off.
The bad guys are the ones that thrive in this image. MVP Willem Dafoe has a tough Texas accent, a distinguished name and talent at the card table. Ol’ Joe Cribbens is nobody’s fool and quick at the draw too. In the film’s best scene, he shoots at cockroaches while being naked from the waist down. We thank Walter Hill for that. Dafoe’s weatherbeaten features and slim build mean he fits right into this small-town slice of vigilantism. Hill offers camera flourishes galore in the form of fancy dissolves and classic western push zoom. Dafoe looks just as good as the face that ends up filling the frame. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, Hamish Linklater likes to play the chic gentleman with the thoroughly rotten brush moustache. When he finally shows up to claim his wife and her lover, it signals that the body count is about to start spinning.
“Dead For A Dollar” is weaker when it comes to cosmetic attempts at spinning out racial politics. The two black characters, Elijah and Amos, are practically sidekicks to Rachel and Max. Aside from one sensational bullwhip fight, they are reduced to noble upstarts who espouse a sense of fairness with no further justification of their character. As for the fearsome Tiberio, he’s little more than a standard character, a puppeteer who occasionally rides into town to unleash Hell.
Despite a hectic list of characters and their ailments, the plot isn’t tightly constructed and scans like a hangout movie at times. Waiting is sewn in the seams: waiting for Martin to arrive in Mexico, waiting for Max to decide who to trust, waiting for who kills whom. What keeps the film from getting bored is the sheer playful breadth of the imagery. From binocular shots to sepia-toned pubs, Hill has made a film that tips his ten-gallon hat to his ancestors. Certain motifs are triple underlined until very funny, although an even more powerful mystery than whether Joe Cribbens is cheating at cards is whether that humor is intentional.
Dead for a Dollar premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It will be released in the US on September 30th by Quiver Distribution.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/dead-for-a-dollar-review-1234759062/ “Dead for a Dollar” review: Christoph Waltz returns in Western