Review by Cole Groth
At 80 years of age, Walter Hill’s career is still moving steadily ahead. Although it’s quite clear that he’s not as sharp as he was in his prime, his latest film, Dead for a Dollar, meanders through common tropes to make a satisfying yet mostly uninteresting Western. While it’s seemingly amateur in production, the A-list cast, led by Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, manages to elevate it to be worthy of a watch if you’re a fan of the genre.
The first thing most viewers might notice is that visually, Dead for a Dollar is wholly unimpressive. Most of the cinematography consists of boring medium shots and even worse lighting. When the cinematography gets tired of being so dull, it gives its laziness over to the editing. Baffling cuts and cheesy wipes take the audience from scene to scene. Unintentionally, some of these cuts are laugh-out-loud hilarious. A shot of Willem Dafoe looking flabbergasted while staring at a gun looks comically bad, and stands out as one of the many moments in the film that will leave the audience questioning “how much did the filmmakers care about this?”
At the expense of the production, Hill relies on a script that doesn’t take many risks, which manages to make a very satisfying Western that isn’t seen frequently nowadays. It’s occasionally very hard to follow whatever is happening, but Christoph Waltz’s dedicated performance, supported by Brandon Scott, takes a powerful hero and charges him to the end. It’s nice to see Waltz getting the hero treatment that he can pull off. He’s a flawed man, yet he’s still wonderfully entertaining and easy to root for.
It’s uncommon to find films like Dead for A Dollar in modern cinema, which makes this release a notably interesting watch. Instead of taking the genre and putting a modern artsy spin on it, as most filmmakers do now, Hill takes a traditional approach. The sets that inhabit this production look remarkably like an old TV show Western set would look. It’s hard to figure out if Hill is paying homage to classical Hollywood or cutting corners when it comes to set design, but the lazy editing, cinematography, and lighting seem to point to the latter.
Some of the characters have motives that will leave even the most attentive viewers rather confused. Willem Dafoe takes the second billing, but his character only seems to exist to share some occasional screen time with Waltz. Rachel Brosnahan’s character of Rachel Price is one of the few things that takes a risk in the film. After running away with a Black deserter of the military, she finds herself hunted down by a group of Mexican gangsters. Her relationship with the deserter, Sergeant Poe (Warren S.L. Burke), is a consistently interesting storyline, and it probably would’ve been a better avenue to explore the conflict that she faces with more precision, rather than the generic plot that this film ends up following.
Even though it’s easy to criticize this film for its production inadequacies, it’s hard not to admire the story. This feels like a Western that your father would show you. If you’re a cinephile, this film definitely won’t satisfy you, but if you love more simple cinema, this should leave you with a smile on your face. Plot lines messily open throughout the film, but it all comes together at the end in an epic shootout. Endings like these are strangely difficult to find. Sometimes it’s good to stick to a formula. This might not be an advanced film, but sometimes it’s important to have less ambitious films to serve as a baseline for the genre that it released in. If the worst-made Westerns can look like this, then it’s at least a step up.
Dead for A Dollar will play in select theaters and on video on demand starting September 30th.
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