When a Western gets made these days, and that’s not a particularly often occurrence, it tends to be of the revisionist variety. Sometimes, it’s a modern take like Cop Land, while other times it’s very much a genre take, like with Logan. There’s also Quentin Tarantino‘s very distinctive two forays into the Western, with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Rarely do we get an old school one, but none other than Walter Hill is here to rectify that. Dead for a Dollar is a real throwback, opting for the slower pace and sometimes even lower stakes of the classic Western. The results are a little messy, but they’re never boring, making for an interesting little watch.
Dead for a Dollar doesn’t reinvent the Western in the slightest, opting instead for classic aesthetics, quality actors, and a belief in the genre. It doesn’t make for anything too instantly memorable, but in the moment, the experience is never less than compelling. To that end, it more than proves its own worth.
We begin by being introduced to longtime bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) as he interacts with his longtime rival Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe). Max has put Joe in jail, which the latter takes issue with. The former is set to free him, with the caveat that he not come searching for him. From there, he takes a job from a wealthy businessman in Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater), who wants his supposed kidnapped wife Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) back. Of course, what seems like a simple job will prove to be anything but.
Max heads deep into Mexican territory to find and return Rachel to her husband, even if he’s skeptical of his true motivations. Finding her, they end up in a small town, awaiting Martin’s arrival. There, the brutal crime boss Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt) rules, while none other than Joe Cribbens is hanging around is there. Any guesses what happens next?
Christoph Waltz is more than comfortable in a Western, while Willem Dafoe is also enjoying a chance to chew a bit of scenery. Waltz is the star and underplays his quirkiness, which is interesting to see. Some of his personality is robbed, but it’s more of a complete turn. Dafoe, on the other hand, is having a blast. Rachel Brosnahan is solid, but does feel a bit out of place, truth be told. Hamish Linklater, on the other hand, is keen to go big with his almost mustache-twirling villain. Supporting players, aside from the aforementioned Benjamin Bratt, include Warren Burke, Guy Burnet, Brandon Scott, and more.
Filmmaker Walter Hill clearly knows his Westerns. His direction is simple and often just focused on the faces of his cast. At the same time, the script he penned with Matt Harris never really gets in depth with anything. It’s a surface level story, keen to just be telling it in the first place. It’s an excuse for Western trappings and some shootouts. The latter doesn’t disappoint, but it is fair to wonder if this good flick could have been great with another coat of paint. At the same time, Hill is such a steady hand at the wheel, you don’t mind all that much.
Dead for a Dollar is an old school Western, as told by an old school filmmaker. That keeps it from ever being too ambitious, but it makes the movie a very specific effort. For my money, the film does more right than it does wrong, and offers a new Walter Hill project, which is good to me. Your mileage may vary, but I found it compelling enough to recommend.