Hill strips away much of the lore for a brutality that is more effective than most.
This review of the film Dead for a Dollar does not contain spoilers.
Dead for a Dollar tells the story of two men at odds with each other, which is a classic Western storytelling trope. One good, the other evil, and if you prefer the lines to be blurred in your dramas, the script by director Walter Hill is standard comfort food. He comes from the David Simon school of writing, where Michael K. Williams’ Omar lives by a code. (In fact, many fail to realize The Wire was a modern-day urban western). In other words, no one will be agathokakological, and the battle lines are drawn. The one with an angel on their left shoulder tells the one with a devil on his right if he ever comes after them after he leaves prison, he will not hesitate to put him in the ground. It is your basic scene from Heat, except this movie does not have Pacino, Deniro, or mutual respect.
One man, a veteran bounty hunter, Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz, returning to the genre), just wants to complete his job. That is tracking down a deserter from a black regiment, Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), from the United States military. The twist is a very wealthy businessman (Hamish Linklater) is funding the search. It turns out that Elijah has run off with his wife (Rachel Brosnahan), which can be very problematic in the 19th century. Even more so if the man is black and the woman is white. Since this is a military situation, Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke) accompanies Borlund with a plan. He is the one who alerted the authorities about the situation, trying to save his friend from making a mistake. It is one thing to leave your post. It is a whole other thing to go with a married man’s wife who does not look like them.
Another parallel storyline is Borlund’s nemesis and longtime rival Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe, dastardly here) leaves for Mexico territory after being released from jail. He is a well-known card shark who takes money off English Bill (Guy Burnet) — a big mistake. Why? Because he is working for Tiberio Vargas (a ruthless Benjamin Bratt), a Mexican crime boss who will not let any gringo walk through his territory without putting a couple’s hands in their pockets; or a bullet in their heads.
Of course, Cribbens and Borlund cross paths again, which is the law in genre films like this. The way Hill has both powerhouse actors cross paths is not particularly interesting. However, it is Brosnahan’s Mrs. Kidd that keeps the viewer hooked. Her character is a welcomed contradiction to typical women in Westerns. Kidd is strong, cunning, and honest with her intentions. As she tries to connect with Waltz’s Borlund, Kidd admits that she is using Elijah to escape, even though she does not see much of a future with him. For that matter, Burke’s character brings the issue of race into the story, but the storyline never sparks heat because Hill’s script never goes there, abandoning any attempt to map today’s social justice issues into the dangerous time period.
Hill’s film is your classic throwback. There is an attempt to incorporate modern themes that never truly take shape, and the film’s end turns into a typical yet effective action film. Dead for a Dollar never fails to entertain, particularly Dafoe’s hard-hearted Cribbens is the film’s secret card up its sleeve. Yet, the movie would have benefited from tapping deeply into prominent themes, but the simple fact is Hill strips away much of the lore for a brutality that is more effective than most.
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