By Juan-Carlos Selznick
Dead for a Dollar is the new western (now streaming on Amazon and Apple TV) from veteran action director Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Driver, Streets of Fire, Southern Comfort, as well as noteworthy westerns such as The Long Riders, Geronimo: An American Legend, Wild Bill and the Broken Trail miniseries). It has Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe in the lead roles, and their individual dramas are variously entangled with stories of a rebellious woman (Rachel Brosnahan) and a diverse gallery of quirky secondary characters played by Benjamin Bratt, Hamish Linklater and a small but distinctive group of relative unknowns.
Waltz is Max Borlund, a no-nonsense bounty hunter, and Dafoe is Joe Cribbens, a raffish outlaw and would-be free spirit. The film begins with the former making a quietly confrontational visit to the latter in the prison from which he’s soon to be released. Both will meet again later on in Mexico, but the main story has Waltz’s bounty hunter being hired by wealthy businessman Martin Kidd (Linklater) to retrieve his wife Rachel (Brosnahan) who has ostensibly been kidnapped by an Army deserter and held for ransom in Mexico.
Max soon learns the kidnapping claim is bogus: The wife, who has the wealth coveted by her very estranged and reprehensible husband, and the deserter, who is black, have been lovers and they’re bargaining for an escape to Cuba, from whence they just might go their separate ways. Several showdowns will eventually converge, character-wise and action-wise.
While there’s a good deal of customary western-movie action, Hill foregrounds the scenes of shifting alliances and unexpected moral reckonings. Filmed on digital video with color mostly in the key of brown, Dead for a Dollar sometimes looks a little like a bare bones made-for-TV movie, but the sepiatone-like images and the stray period details (it’s the “Old West,” except that it’s also 1897) have a nice cumulative effect that’s very much in keeping with the grubbily earnest character dramas that are the film’s main action.
It is a bit distressing, at first, that Waltz and Dafoe tend to speak a little like “modern” middle-aged men. But that too, I’m thinking, seems in keeping with the film’s nudging emphases on stray bits of archaic and “old-fashioned” behavior rattling around in what is almost the 20th Century. Brosnahan’s Rachel Kidd is similarly conflicted—a 19th Century woman of privilege who is also a modern feminist and “revolutionary” in the making.
Standout performances include Warren Burke as Sgt. Alonzo Poe, a Buffalo soldier charged with assisting Max in the mission of retrieval; Linklater, a study in lethal fecklessness as the villainous husband; and Luis Chávez as Esteban Romero, a meek young man with a law degree who tries mightily to deal with Max on behalf of the cruelly domineering land baron played by Bratt. And Bratt cuts a fine malevolent figure as the film’s other major villain—a well-dressed oligarch on horseback, wearing a large black hat pulled down to his eyebrows.
Sardonic dialog adds some special flavor: in a particularly tense moment, Max tells Sgt. Poe he needn’t worry: “If he kills you, I’ll kill him.” When Max with his faint German accent is quizzed about his exact nationality, he simply declares he’s “American.” When Joe is asked a similar question in Mexico, he starts to say “American,” but catches himself and firmly asserts, “Texan.”
You might say that some of the film’s best duels have no gun play—they are instead intensely compact wars of words. And there is one spectacularly violent duel without guns: When a redneck outlaw comes after him with a bullwhip, Sgt. Poe responds in kind with a whip of his own.