Walter Hill is back in the saddle thanks to “Dead for a Dollar”.
The action auteur behind “The Long Riders,” “Wild Bill” and “Geronimo: An American Legend” returns to his beloved genre. And he’s got some serious creative firepower on his side, including Oscar winner Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe.
“Dead” is not an instant classic. The stakes are too low and script hiccups drain some of the story’s inherent tension. Still, the gritty morality behind the tale and some slick gunplay from the 80-year-old auteur make it a solid genre entry.
Waltz stars as Max Borlund, a bounty hunter tasked with rescuing a woman from the clutches of a diabolical black deserter.
Or so Max is told.
In reality, Rachel (“Mrs. Maisel” herself, Rachel Brosnahan) ran away with Elijah (Brandon Scott), her former student, to escape her abusive husband.
It doesn’t matter to Max. He has a job to do, and that’s exactly what he wants to do. However, it will not be easy. His path crosses with a Mexican kingpin (Benjamin Bratt, cool but in too few scenes) along with an old nemesis.
It’s Dafoe as Joe Cribbens, a lifelong criminal whose gun-slinging skills are second to none. Dafoe enjoys himself without chafing in the scenery, a performance that highlights the stilted nature of his colleagues.
Hill ensures that this western snapshot is fixed, even formalized, down to the stoic line readings. Even the film’s color palette hearkens back to the past, with sepia tones that make it look like “Dead for a Dollar” hit theaters in the 1960s, not today.
If you can’t guess where all this is going, then you’ve never seen a western. Yet formula never prevented a film from achieving lift-off. After a pedestrian start, “Dead” finds its rhythm.
Max’s inner conflict simmers the more he learns about Rachel’s situation. And he is similarly torn over Elijah’s fate, knowing that he has the power to intervene, but not without consequences.
Modern filmmaking is creeping into Hill’s legendary vision. Frontier women can be as brave and empowered as the men of the time. “Terror on the Prairie” expertly proved just that.
Brosnahan’s Rachel still feels ripped from the 21st century.
The story’s racial element also feels clipped so as not to offend. Elijah’s race, and Max’s partner-in-crime Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke), rarely attract attention.
It’s the color-blind world we all long for, but for a period in the West, we’d probably hear plenty of vile “n-words” dropped.
Once again, a modern film threatens period accuracy to avoid triggering awake viewers.
NOTE: Hill told the press he made “Dead for a Dollar” for modern times.
“I thought it had to have a modern relevance, so it was kind of dichotomous or contradictory, if you will.”
More disturbing is Elijah’s lack of screen time. He is a crucial player here, at least on paper. Yet we never get to know him. He lacks both screen time and chemistry with Rachel.
Hill’s missteps aside, the Hollywood pro leads us to the third act confrontation we’ve been longing for. Plus, a spirited whip duel prior to the fireworks suggests Hill still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
So does the classic western yarn.
Hello or miss: Walter Hill’s “Dead for a Dollar” is a robust if unremarkable oat in the grand tradition.