Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Quiver Distribution will release the film in theaters on Friday, September 30.
Let Walter Hill take you back to the Old West and diplomacy, 1897-style, where differences are figured out with card games and bullwhips, and folks have itching powder all over their trigger fingers. Shooting someone dead is presented as a go-to for how to resolve an argument in this world. References to guns are made with such regularity that it becomes unclear whether this is a straight Western or a pastiche. Dialogue tends to unfold like this. Sneering goon: “Who are you?” Witty good guy: “I’m the fella with the gun!”
That’s “Dead for a Dollar” for ya. One of the main fellas with a gun is famed bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) who has been hired by the well-to-do Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater) to find his teacher wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) after she disappears with her Black student Elijah (Brandon Scott). The way that Martin tells it, Elijah kidnapped Rachel. But instead what we see of the duo making their way through the desert from America to Mexico reveals that they’re romantically involved and on the run together. We know this, but the bounty hunter does not, although a helpful coincidence is at hand. Sergeant Amos Poe (Warren Burke) comes along with Max, as he knows Elijah from serving together in the US army, and he is convinced that his old friend is not a kidnapper.
If you’re thinking ‘that’s a lot of backstory’ you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Enter the fabulously-named outlaw, Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), intent on settling a score with Borlund who put him in jail for five years. There is also the fearsome Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt), a cigar-chomping Mexican overlord who has a habit of riding up with armed heavies to menace anyone who shows up on his turf in Pueblo De Guadeloupe. This is the place where all characters end up converging and have to make quickdraw decisions about where their loyalties lie.
The relationship between Max and Rachel is the basis of the moral issues that “Dead for a Dollar” would like to explore. Max and Amos find the runaways soon enough, and the stakes shift to whether Max will stick to the terms of his job with its $5,000 bounty, or whether he will side with Rachel. “Martin Kidd is not just a bad person, he’s also a very bad man,” she tells Max, whose main trait is that he likes the truth and dislikes lies. The reveal that Martin lied about Elijah kidnapping Rachel plants the first seed of doubt.
Unfortunately for the film, the usually stalwart Christoph Waltz is asleep at the wheel, phoning in a performance that is all the slighter for his previous searing portrayals of a literal bounty hunter in “Django Unchained” and a Nazi twist on one in “Inglorious Basterds.” Rachel Brosnahan seems to belong in a different film altogether, with her combination of feminine delicacy and flashing-eyed defiance evoking Edith Wharton heroines. Brosnahan is certainly doing something with a script that literalizes her motivations until there is nothing left for her to convey non-verbally. She serves up extra chutzpah with every gesture, but with Waltz busy fading into the scenery, there is no-one for her to bounce off.
The bad guys are the ones thriving in this picture. MVP Willem Dafoe sports a chewy Texas accent, an excellent name and talent at the card table. Ol’ Joe Cribbens is no one’s fool and quick to the draw as well. The best scene in the film involves him shooting at cockroaches while naked from the waist down. For this, we thank Walter Hill. Dafoe’s weatherbeaten features and rangy physique mean he slots right into this small town slice of vigilante justice. Hill offers up camera flourishes galore in the form of fancy fades and the classic Western push zoom. Dafoe looks just dandy as the face that eventually fills the frame. On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, Hamish Linklater relishes his turn as the fancy gentleman with a brush mustache who is rotten through and through. When he shows up at the end to claim his wife and her lover, it signals that the body count is about to start spinning.
“Dead For A Dollar” is weaker when it comes to cosmetic attempts to spin out racial politics. The two Black characters, Elijah and Amos, are effectively sidekicks to Rachel and Max. One sensational bullwhip fight aside, they are reduced to being noble upstarts, standing in for a sense of fairness without further substantiation of their characters. As for the fearsome Tiberio, he is little more than a stock figure, a puppet master who occasionally rides into town to unleash merry hell.
Despite a hectic list of characters and their grievances, the plot is not tightly constructed and scans, for stretches, like a hang-out movie. Waiting around is stitched into the seams: waiting for Martin to arrive in Mexico, waiting for Max to decide who to trust, waiting to see who kills who. What saves the film from lapsing into ennui is the sheer playful extent of the visual language. From binocular-vision shots to the sepia-tinged saloon bars, Hill has made a movie that doffs its ten-gallon hat to its forebears. Certain motifs are triple-underlined to the point of being very funny, although a mystery still more potent than whether Joe Cribbens cheats at cards is whether this humor is intentional.
“Dead for a Dollar” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Quiver Distribution will release it in theaters on Friday, September 30.