Dead for a Dollar releases theatrically Friday, Sept. 30th.
Understandably, cinematic curiosity may grab hold when you learn Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs.) wrote and directed a new Western starring Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, but Dead for a Dollar is a meandering shoot ’em up with no clear direction other than to gently fritter away the talents of a strong ensemble.
The story of a bounty hunter, Max Borlund (Waltz), hired to rescue a rich man’s kidnapped wife (pssst, she’s not kidnapped, just run off with her beau to Mexico), Dead for a Dollar offers an interesting set up but then stumbles with it in the second half, unable to follow through in a way that satisfyingly services the story or characters. Max is dastardly one moment, honorable the next, with no proper vision for who he is as a peripheral lawman.
Dafoe’s poker-playing no-goodnik, Joe Cribbens, bearing a grudge against Max after five years in prison, is a wild card who never amounts to much other than allowing Dafoe and Waltz to occasionally share screen time. That can be fun in its own right, but the back part of the saga feels like it was written on the fly and sewn up in a random, lazy manner. There are extraneous scenes that don’t need to be there, choices made that feel arbitrary, and a grander sense looming of a cast and crew making use of a Wild West set simply because it’s there.
Benjamin Bratt, Hamish Linklater, Warren Burke, and Brandon Scott help round out the cast, with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan playing the fleeing Rachel Price, one of the better defined characters. Because Dead for a Dollar has so many moving — and sometimes random-feeling — parts, there’s an attempt made to make things feel dangerous and spontaneous, as if anyone could die at any moment, rather unceremoniously. But the film takes itself too seriously to make that type of playfulness work, so some of the more abrupt moments just fall flat.
The cast makes the most of this winding road tale full of archetypes and eccentrics, but no theme introduced is fully explored. To be fair, Dead for a Dollar is humbly presented. It’s not designed for big impact. Displayed in muted sepia tones (which give it an “authentic” photograph feel while masking some of the budget constraints), it’s meant to play out like a twisty, turny crime movie with a collision course on its mind. Waltz and Dafoe kick off the adventure by warning each other to steer clear, signaling that fate will draw them together by the end. But will they meet up as enemies or unlikely allies?
Brosnahan’s runaway Rachel and Brandon Scott’s AWOL Buffalo Soldier Elijah Jones are lovers but also mostly realistic ones, not romantic dreamers. As an interracial couple fleeing their own respective hells, they understand the temporary nature of this trek. And while that’s an interesting take, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with that when Max comes calling in the first act, ready to take her home. But Max himself isn’t a stably rooted character either anyhow. Waltz is always great, but we understand very little about Max and are given no indication as to why he should care about the truth and their plight. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Waltz played a better bounty hunter in a vastly better Western a decade ago.
A surprise standout here is Warren Burke’s Sergeant Poe, the Buffalo Soldier who accompanies Max on his hired mission to Mexico. Dead for a Dollar doesn’t know what to do with him either at times, motivation-wise, but there are moments when he actually comes off as the film’s stealth hero. By the end, bullets will have flown, bodies will have dropped, and you’ll have definitely watched a movie, but one without much creative spark aside from its fun casting. There’s no one truly likable, or fully loathsome, on this journey, which just sort of rolls down the road like a tumbleweed.
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