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Six years between films is not necessarily an excessively long time for many notable directors today. Why, then, is there such a buzz of excitement surrounding “Dead for a Dollar,” the action filmmaker Walter Hill’s first film in six years?
Well, he turned 80 this year, and at that age, a six-year break in movies is something that worries fans. The fact that “Dead for a Dollar” appeared to be the first entirely pleasant Walter Hill film in more than six years is more important, though. As I noted in my review at the time, the film that came before this one, “The Assignment,” was “an undoubtedly misdirected provocation” with a transgender story device that made it resemble Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In” in “EC Comics variation” fashion.
I said, “A lot of the movie is more watchable than it has a right to be because Mr. Hill is still, in most aspects, Mr. Hill. Additionally, I believed that “Dead for a Dollar” had a strong chance of avoiding the problems with “The Assignment” because it is a Western.
Sure enough, it does, even as it purposefully enters an area that might be contentious. Widescreen shots of the beautiful and brutal American Southwest environment open “Dead.” We next see a rider and horse, followed by another horse whose rider is clutching a parasol to protect himself from the sun. These two are army deserter Elijah Jones and Rachel Kidd, who varies depending on who is narrating the story as either his willing companion or his kidnap victim.
Max Borland, a bounty hunter who will soon be recruited to find this pair, is portrayed by Christoph Waltz. Prior to it, we discover that he and Joe Cribbens, a bank robber and gambler who served five years in prison because of Max, had a score to settle. The day before Joe is set to be released from a filthy cell, Max pays him a visit and tells him to stay away from him because whatever Joe believes Max is owed will not be paid. We are aware that they must recross paths. This film, which was written by Hill and Matt Harris, will definitely follow the tradition.
This is accurate even though it gives the situation fresh interesting details. In the same way that Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) is white and Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) is a Black man. Jones’ commander and Rachel’s affluent husband are both rightfully incensed (Hamish Linklater). They claim that Jones abducted Rachel and is now seeking $10,000 in exchange for her release. Only partially true. The real story is that Rachel, an abusive wife, and Jones have fled together and are looking for money to finish their escape, possibly to Cuba. Max initially just truly understands that he will receive $2,000 to finish their tax return. The Army loans Max a sniper named Poe (Warren Burke), a friend of Jones who is also Black, to help with this goal.
Although the racial dynamics in the film—which also includes the Mexicans Max and Poe will work with and compete with once they cross the border—are not overtly emphasized, they are highlighted just enough to give some helpful tension.
— RogerEbert.com (@ebertvoices) September 6, 2022
The fact that Hill dedicates this film to the legendary Western filmmaker Budd Boetticher reveals how he and Waltz conceived of Max Borland. Randolph Scott, a mainstay of the Boetticher cast, may have portrayed the character of Borland. Borland is unwaveringly honest while yet being a pragmatist. He enjoys having money, but when the going gets tough, he’s picky about who he takes it from. Borland starts to doubt his allegiances as he learns more about Rachel’s serpent husband and that Elijah and Rachel are merely trying to obtain their independence, which the world has denied them. The nasty Mexican landlord Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt), who will, among other things, arrange for Joe Cribbens‘ (Willem Dafoe) and Max’s paths to intersect once more, is adding to his fears.
The action finale of this story, which is certain to result in numerous simultaneous showdowns, is masterfully staged by Hill; it is exciting, startling, and never dips into formal trickery or narrative cheapness to give the spectator what it wants and deserves. Sadly, Hill’s controlled, terse approach doesn’t serve him as well in the lead-up to this as it did in masterpieces like “The Driver” and “The Long Riders,” to name just a couple. While Dafoe takes up his role with zest and Burke and Brosnahan especially seem to be finding their footing in certain early sequences, Waltz is fantastic as Max and it must have been a delight for Waltz, who also executive produced, to play a guy who is simply a hero, no tics or perversions required. These characteristics are what set instant masterpieces apart from immediately enjoyable entertainment. And I’ll concede that “Dead for a Dollar” might look better in a few years than it does right now. Additionally, it appeared better than decent today.
This review was submitted following the Venice Film Festival debut. On September 30, it debuts.