Dead for a Dollar, 2022.
Directed by Walter Hill.
Starring Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, Hamish Linklater, Benjamin Bratt, Guy Burnet, Brandon Scott, Scott Peat, Warren Burke, Luis Chávez, Gabriela Alicia Ortega, Jackamoe Buzzell, J.D. Garfield, Shawn-Caulin Young, Vic Browder, Alfredo Quiroz, Diane Villegas, Herman Johansen, and Fidel Gomez.
1897. Dead for a Dollar follows veteran bounty hunter Max Borlund deep into Mexico, where he encounters professional gambler and outlaw Joe Cribbens—a sworn enemy who Max sent to prison years before. Borlund is on a mission to find and return Rachel Kidd, the hostage wife of a wealthy Santa Fe businessman. Discovering that Mrs. Kidd has actually fled from an abusive marriage, Max is ultimately faced with a choice: finish the dishonest job he’s been hired to accomplish or stand aside while ruthless mercenary outlaws and his long-time rival close in… Max and his partner Alonzo Poe have nothing to gain if they resist— nothing save honor.
To say that revered action filmmaker Walter Hill’s latest, Dead for a Dollar, is of inconsistent quality would be an understatement. One minute, there are picturesque wide shots of characters riding on horseback; the next, we are in an enclosed area such as a saloon or prison with distractingly poor color grading that will leave one wondering how many dollars the movie was made for and how fast Walter Hill rushed the entire production.
The script itself (co-written by Walter Hill alongside Matt Harris) often feels like a skeleton; there are several decent ideas touching upon gender and racial dynamics, masculinity, honesty, deception, and justice, marking a somewhat refreshing take on late nineteenth-century Westerns destined to culminate with gunslinging, but barely formed to a degree where many scenes bear rough draft dialogue, sometimes going on for as little as 20 seconds before awkwardly cutting away to another scantly developed interaction between characters. Then there are other times the dialogue has bite with scenes sustaining a great deal of tension and shock (in terms of who lives and dies, no character is safe here, providing heightened danger and urgency).
As such, it’s hard not to feel frustrated for the Dead for a Dollar ensemble, a diverse collection of performances where everyone puts in their all to elevate the wonky material. The stand-out is Rachel Brosnahan’s Rachel Kidd, a married woman fleeing her rocky marriage under the guise of a fake kidnapping and ransom situation alongside her new love, Black military runaway Elijah Jones (Brendon Scott).
While the script doesn’t bop audiences over the head with racial commentary, it’s a given that, considering the place and time, this is a bad look for rich, high social status businessman Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater), who will take any means necessary to get his wife back and squash this scandal. More to the point, Rachel is no damsel in distress; with her upright posture and sternness, she’s not afraid to smack someone showing disrespect or to fiercely turn someone’s projections of her around on them mid-conversation. Her weapon is blunt honesty, and she fires it off like a six-shooter, telling it like it is to those around her. Rachel Brosnahan delivers a commanding performance that overcomes structural and editing issues.
Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Max Borlund is tasked with retrieving Rachel, saddled with the lively Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke), a lively Black squadmate of Elijah conflicted on his friend’s actions. Doing a variation of his Django Unchained charming hitman, Max is easy-going, witty, seemingly impossible to rattle, full of surprises, and has no opinion one way or the other about Rachel, her escape, and who she loves. He prioritizes business, but even that becomes compromised once he learns that the mission briefing was a lie, keeping with the theme that one likes being made a fool and that honesty cuts through any dilemma.
The same could be said about Max’s criminal rival Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), a murderous gambler finishing his prison sentencing as the film begins. During a quietly heated back and forth with Max, Joe explains that he’s running off to Mexico. Call it fortune or bad luck, but the fake hostage situation also makes its way to the same town, where Max assumes law enforcement control over the situation from the locals, who are interested in doing what’s right but have to keep in their back mind Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt), a powerful land contractor looking to close a deal with English Bill (Guy Burnet).
Dead for a Dollar simply has too many characters, which only exacerbates the production flaws (namely the awkward editing). However, once these moving pieces merge on their collision course, there is a stronger sense of the themes Walter Hill aims for. The more the film finds its footing, the more riveting the performances become.
A grand finale with well-constructed gunfights and an exciting, quick draw are also welcome, proving that Walter Hill can still stage thrilling set-pieces. It’s just a shame everything else looks cheap and is half-baked. Still, this film is more alive than dead, feeding off terrific acting.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com