‘Death for a Dollar’ Review: Waltz, Dafoe as Rival Western Cutthroats

The title of Walter Hill’s “Dead for a Dollar” feels like a spaghetti western, and the picture opens with stunning vistas and a nostalgic, valiant neo-Morricone score that makes you feel – can -be hopeful – that it will. It ends on a very different note: a series of titles explaining, with precise dates and details, what happened to each of the main characters, as if the film were based on a true story. It’s the “American Graffiti” gamble of treating fictional characters as if they were real, but in this case it ends up revealing something vital about the drama we watched. Namely, how he could be so greedy, specific and scrupulously structured… yet aloof.

Hill, now in his 80s but still directing with his lean, mean vigor and classic rawhide stoicism (the film is dedicated to Budd Boetticher, the legendary low-budget Western director of the 1950s), built “Dead for a Dollar ” around a vintage confrontation between two men who live, in fact or in spirit, outlaws: Max Borlund, a bounty hunter embodied by Christoph Waltz with a worldly wink that basically allows him to be impersonating a mischievous assassin, and Joe Cribbens, a gambler and outlaw played by Willem Dafoe as the liveliest of sociopaths. The two have known each other for a long time and collide in the opening scene, when Joe is released from prison. But then they separate. The film turns its attention to Max on his latest assignment for hire, which involves several characters you’d never see in a Budd Boetticher film from the 50s, or even a Walter Hill Western from the 70s or 80s.

They include, for starters, the two people he’s been hired to track down: Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan), the wife of a wealthy New Mexico businessman, and Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), the black deserter from the U.S. Army who took him hostage and demands $10,000 ransom – even though, in fact, the hostage-taking is a ruse. Elijah and Rachel ran away together, and the interracial “kidnap” element, in the context of the Western setting (the film is set in 1897), evokes “The Searchers”, the twist being that in this case, people of color are not seen through a racist lens. On the contrary: Hill attempts to right the wrongs of the genre. He gives us two vital black characters – with Elijah there is Sgt. Poe, whom Max takes as a partner on his mission to Mexico. Poe is Elijah’s former army comrade, and the two understand the world they find themselves in, though they disagree on how radically to fight him.

On paper, it sounds like a new way to make a western, and Burke invests Sgt. Poe with a naughty charisma that doesn’t let go. But Brandon Scott, who acts with magnetism and danger, plays a character to whom the film gives the tramp rush. Elijah is set up as the moral linchpin of the story, but then, when the film arrives in the remote Mexican town in which most of it takes place, he’s thrown in jail and essentially shut down. The film made us want to hear his voice, not see him sidelined.

For a while, “Dead for a Dollar” plays out entertainingly. Written by Hill, the film is more talkative than most contemporary westerns (like those that bathed Kevin Costner in iconic wordless majesty), and the threats bounce off with some literate macho showmanship. There are some good card games, a fight between two men each wielding a whip (one is Sgt. Poe, and the racial symbolism of guns), and a fiercely sharp performance. of Brosnahan, who does Rachel, by breaking up with her hateful businessman husband (Hamish Linklater), like Nora from “A Doll’s House” crossed with Charles Bronson. In this saga of men, and one woman, who pretend to be good but have bad in them, or maybe a lot, Benjamin Bratt plays the Ubervillain, a Mexican criminal lord who terrorizes everyone with great elegance, and Bratt, as I always remember, is such a terrific actor — I wish Hill had built an entire movie around this character.

Rachel is a pretty good character, but she’s the center of things…until she’s not. That’s true for just about everyone on screen. Hill wants to “do justice” to each of these people, but the result is that “Dead for a Dollar” lacks a dramatic core. There are actors we love to watch, doing what they do well (like Waltz playing a civilized badass), but it’s not structured in such a way that none of their fates escape us. Characters we don’t expect to be killed off are killed off in the blink of an eye, and while I respect the theoretical audacity of that, I feel like the film is losing pieces of itself. Instead of building up, the tension dissipates. At the end you think: yes, it could have been based on a true story, but too bad he didn’t abandon the story and print the legend.

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