Review: A Strong Ensemble Cast Help Elevate Dead for a Dollar an Otherwise Washed-Out Western

Casting no aspersions on the great filmmaker Walter Hill, his new western, Dead for a Dollar, isn’t particularly memorable or special. In fact, the whole piece looks like it was shot under an orange light with a camcorder. What it does have going for it, however, is a tremendous cast, led by Christoph Waltz as bounty hunter Max Borlund, a recognized leader in his field and utter professional who has made a lot of enemies along the way, including outlaw Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), who is about to be released from prison and vows that the next time the two men see each other, Joe will kill Max, the man who caught him in the first place.

But before that showdown can happen, Max is hired by a spurned husband (Hamish Linklater) to track down and bring back his kidnapped wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who supposedly was taken by a deserting Buffalo Soldier named Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) and brought down to Mexico. Max is assigned another Black soldier, Sgt. Poe (Warren Burke), to accompany him, and it turns out he and Elijah were such good friends that Elijah gave Poe a map to where in Mexico he was going, making Max’s job a whole lot easier. But things aren’t always what they seem, and it turns out Rachel willingly went with Elijah, her new lover, and the two have made a deal with the local crime boss (Benjamin Bratt) to be protected in exchange for ransom money for a kidnapping that never happened.

When Max and Sgt. Poe arrive where Elijah and Rachel are living, he’s unsure what to do but decides the best course of action is to carry out the mission he’s been paid to do rather than take pity on the couple. But as I mentioned, things aren’t always what they seem. Before long, Max is matching wits and guns with Bratt and his gang, a jealous husband and his posse, and the local authorities who are trying to keep any violence from happening as forces converge on this quiet little town.

While the story of Dead for a Dollar is somewhat compelling, especially considering the position that both Black men are in, the screenplay is fairly weak, with cliche-driven dialogue and nothing that really distinguishes these characters from any other western of this type. Anything that stands out about any of the characters comes down to the individual performances, most of which are strong enough to elevate the material far beyond what’s on the page. But it’s the visuals on Dead for a Dollar that gave me pause. I’ve seen soap operas shot with more vibrant colors and visual flair than this movie, and I realize director Hill (who co-wrote the film with Matt Harris) probably didn’t have the budget for something more elaborate or technically advanced, but it comes across as artistic slumming, and seeing such washed-out visuals just bummed me out.

But not everything about the movie is so dire. The final showdown between Max and Joe is well handled and doesn’t play out exactly how I was expecting, and even the kidnapping drama takes some unanticipated turns. Make no mistake, I’d rather have Hill making movies like this than not making them at all, but someone needs to back him to the point where he can make films that will stand the test of time in every respect. I’m not sure my eyes can take another rust-colored work from any filmmaker.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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