Writer/Director Walter Hill returns to the Western with Dead for a Dollar.
Dead for a Dollar is a loving homage to filmmaker Budd Boetticher. Boetticher like director Walter Hill dealt with masculinity and men who deal in the gray morality and strict codes of violence in his lean economical genre films.
Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) is an aging bounty hunter. When we meet Borlund he is paying a visit to Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) in prison. The visit is not one of conscious but for Borlund to see what Cribbens intentions are. Cribbens says nothing of any nefarious plans other than to gamble and seek the company of women south of the border. Though fate will have different plans for both men with very different intents and purposes find themselves headed to a confrontation nonetheless.
As Borlund takes the job of capturing a Soldier (Warren Burke) who has kidnapped a Rich Man (Hamish Linklater at his most despicable) wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Borland goes into Mexico with Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) and finds more than he bargained for in a land where nothing is what it seems. From Rachel to her husband to Elijah to a Mexican Land Baron (Benjamin Bratt) to Cribbens Borlund must face off against either by the Gun or Wits. All culminating in a do-or-die showdown finale.
Hill’s return to the genre that has been a boon throughout his career is not just a reason to rejoice for his fans but for fans of film in general. Dead for a Dollar is lean and economical like the best of Hill’s work in and out of the genre. Armed with a script that’s sharply aware of the modern and the classic western troupes. Rather than taking to change the plot mechanics, the movie changes the characters we see in the genre’s most well-worn situations. The result is something that feels both new and old.
By having a foreigner, two black men, and a woman be the focus of the story, Dead for a Dollar becomes something altogether different. The casting of Christoph Waltz and Rachael Bronashan was a brilliant stroke as the duo is incapable of a false note or a bad performance. Equally impressive are Brandon Scott as Elijah and Warren Burke as Poe the Buffalo Soldiers at opposite ends of “the law”. Hill’s film has both black men playing very different roles but always in that sort of professional intelligence that Hill’s characters are known for.
The film is lean on action and heavy on character to its benefit. Dead for a Dollar allows all the chess pieces to move into place for the final showdown. The results are a film – as in the best of Hill’s work – where the violence counts and is impactful.
Dead for a Dollar shows like its characters there’s still much it’s Writer/Director has left in him. Let us hope this is the beginning of a new chapter for the director rather than the ending of one. Either way, we have a new Walter Hill joint out in the world. A damn good one at that. That is reason enough to celebrate.