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These days, for a good number of notable directors, six years between films isn’t necessarily an unconscionably long time. So why, you may wonder, has there been so much excited anticipation about “Dead for a Dollar,” the first feature in six years from the protean action director Walter Hill?
Well, for one thing, he turned 80 this year, and at that age a six-year pause in films is one that fans get nervous about. But more to the point is the fact that “Dead for a Dollar” seemed most likely to be the first wholly palatable Walter Hill movie in longer than six years. The feature that preceded this one, “The Assignment,” was, I stated in my review at the time, “an arguably misguided provocation” whose transgender plot hook made it play “like an EC Comics variation” on Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In.”
“Because Mr. Hill is still, in most respects, Mr. Hill, a lot of the movie is more watchable than it has a right to be,” I concluded. And because “Dead for a Dollar” is a Western, I thought it had a good chance of avoiding the pitfalls of “The Assignment.”
Sure enough it does, even as it deliberately positions itself in potentially inflammatory territory. “Dead” begins with widescreen imagery of a magnificent and punishing American Southwest landscape; from a distance, we see a rider and horse followed by another horse whose rider is holding a parasol as a shield from the sun. These two are Elijah Jones, an Army deserter, and Rachel Kidd, who is, depending on who’s telling the narrative, either his willing companion or his abductee.
Christoph Waltz plays Max Borlund, a bounty hunter who will soon be hired to track this pair down. Before that, we learn of a grudge between him and Joe Cribbens, a gambler and bank robber who spent five years in jail on account of Max. Max visits Joe on the day before he’s to be released from a dusty cell and informs him that whatever Joe thinks Max owes him, he ain’t going to get it and he’d best keep away. We know their paths have to cross again. This picture, written by Hill and Matt Harris, is going to be firmly In The Tradition.
This is true even as it adds new points of interest to the scenario. As in Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) is Black, and Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) is white. Jones’ commander is rightly outraged, as is Rachel’s wealthy husband (Hamish Linklater). Their story is that Jones kidnapped Rachel and is demanding $10,000 for her return. That’s half true. The whole truth is that Rachel, an abused wife, and Jones have run off together and seek the money to complete their getaway, to Cuba perhaps. At first, all Max really knows is that he’ll get $2,000 to complete their return. To assist in this end, the Army lends Max a sharpshooter named Poe (Warren Burke), a friend of Jones who’s also Black.
The movie doesn’t lean too hard on the racial dynamics here—which also included the Mexicans Max and Poe will both collaborate and go up against once they cross the border—but they are foregrounded just enough to add some useful tension.
Hill dedicates this movie to the great Western director Budd Boetticher, and this dedication unlocks his and Waltz’s conception of Max Borlund. That is, Borlund is a character that could have been played by the Boetticher stalwart Randolph Scott. Borlund is scrupulously pragmatic but also utterly honest. He likes his money but when it comes down to brass tacks he’s particular about who he takes it from. As he learns more about Rachel’s snake husband, and of the fact that Rachel and Elijah are only seeking what the world has denied them, which is their freedom, Borlund begins to question his loyalties. Adding to his worries are the vicious Mexican land boss Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt), who, among other things, will arrange for Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) and Max’s paths to cross once more.
This story is bound to lead to several showdowns at once, and the action climax is beautifully orchestrated by Hill: it’s suspenseful, jarring, and never descends to formal cheating of narrative cheapness to give the audience what it wants and deserves. In the runup to this, Hill’s measured, terse style doesn’t, unfortunately, serve him quite as well as it did in masterworks like “The Driver” and “The Long Riders,” to name just two. And while Waltz is wonderful as Max—it must have been kind of a thrill for Waltz, who also executive-produced, to play a guy who’s simply a hero, no tics or perversities required—and Dafoe eats up his role with vigor, a couple of the actors, Burke and Brosnahan particularly, seem to be finding their footing in some early scenes. These are the distinctions that separate the instant classics from the immediately satisfying entertainments. And I’ll allow that in a few years “Dead for a Dollar” may look better than it does today. And today it looked better than pretty good.
This review was filed from the premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It opens on September 30th.