Movie Review: Short of Cash, “Dead for a Dollar”

Walter Hill has been one of the modern cinema’s true masters of the Western film. He directed “The Long Riders,” “Geronimo,” and “Wild Bill,” and he directed the pilot of the TV series “Wild Bill” helped inspire, “Deadwood,” as well as a Western mini series of some repute — “Broken Trail.”

But “Dead for a Dollar,” which is almost certain to be his farewell to the genre, makes for a desultory curtain call.

The script is a nonsensical Western variation of the “kidnapped wife not really kidnapped” trope. The dialogue has its hard-bitten moments, but they’re few and far between. The texture is tidy rather than dusty and saddle sore, a Western with precious little grit as everyone and everything is freshly-scrubbed and coiffed, even the horses.

Did Martha Stewart do the production design? Not “a good thing.”

Hill built the film around the most colorless performance in Austrian showboat Christoph Waltz’s screen career, miscast Rachel Brosnahan as the “kidnapped” wife and Hamish Linklater as her jealous, jilted husband.

And Willem Dafoe and Benjamin Bratt aren’t good enough to rescue it.

Waltz plays “Mister Borlund,” a bounty hunter who always gets his man, always takes him by surprise and usually blows holes in him when he does.

“Just another fella dead for a dollar,” is the way one bad hombre (Dafoe) he brought in alive describes Borlund’s other victims. Joe Cribbens is about to finish his prison sentence when he gets a Borlund visit. Borlund warns him in a way that lets us know Cribbens won’t be taking the advice. These two “have a reckoning” coming.

Meanwhile, there’s this rich and powerful man (Linklater) in New Mexico Territory (1897) whose wife has run for the border with her latest lover, an Army deserter who happens to be Black (Brandon Scott). Borlund is hired to go south and fetch her from Mexico, with a Cavalry Buffalo Soldier (Warren Burke) assigned to guide him.

Standing in their way is the armed oligarch ranch owner who runs things in his corner of Chihuahua, Tiberio Vargas (Bratt).

A lot of the characters have a lot to say in this against-the-Eastwood-grain horse opera. Everybody talks and talks and talks.

“I guess you wanna know my story, too,” Corporal Pope (Burke) offers, a trooper inclined to overshare pretty much every time he appears on screen. He’s about to face a hired gun with a thing for bullwhips and feels the need to list his credits.

“First five years in the Army, they had me working as a TEAMSTER.” As if his foe, or we, need to be told how someone got good with a bullwhip. Pages of unnecessary dialogue clutter the screenplay.

Brosnahan’s Rachel Kidd tries to reason with her “rescuer,” wondering if the real crime is that she’s “run off with a man of color.”

Perhaps the real crime is fleeing, pretending to be kidnapped and demanding ransom of her husband. And she’s about 110 years ahead of the curve in using the phrase “man of color.” At least “uppity” is deployed in a Jim Crow-correct sense, although all these violent lowlifes seem to have had their speech scrubbed of the racial slurs so common in the 19th century, and lose some of their menace because of it.

There’s a testy poker game with a British popinjay nicknamed English Bill (Guy Burnet) that gives Dafoe one good line, and little else.

“If I was you, I’d get outta my sight before I run through all my good humor.

Everyone involved can be excused for jumping at the chance to make a Western for one of the masters of the genre. But the performances, almost to a one, seem shellshocked at how little money was being spent to make it look, sound and feel right.

Brosnahan in particular seems to take Waltz’s “colorless” turn as the tone she chooses to strike.

A vintage Hill bit with a horse coming through glass doors and a couple of decent exchanges in an overall perfunctory big shootout finale arrive just in time to remind of us how great this filmmaker once was, and how sad it is that he has to hang up his spurs with “Dead for a Dollar.”

Rating: R for violence, some sexual content/graphic nudity and language.

Cast: Christoph Waltz, Rachel Brosnahan, Warren Burke, Luis Chávez, Brandon Scott, Willem Dafoe and Benjamin Bratt

Credits: Directed by Walter Hill, scripted by Matt Harris and Water Hill. A Quiver release.

Running time: 1:46

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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