The title of Walter Hill’s “Dead for a Dollar” makes it sound like a spaghetti Western, and the picture opens with stunning vistas and a wistfully valorous neo-Morricone score that gives you the impression — maybe the hope — that it will be. It ends on a very different note: a series of titles explaining, with precise dates and details, what happened to each of the main characters, as if the film were based on a true story. It’s the “American Graffiti” gambit of treating fictional characters as though they were real, only in this case it ends up revealing something essential about the drama we’ve been watching. Namely, how it could be so avid, specific, and scrupulously carpentered…yet remote.
Hill, who is now 80 but still directs with his lean-and-mean vigor and classical rawhide stoicism (the movie is dedicated to Budd Boetticher, the legendary low-budget Western director of the ’50s), builds “Dead for a Dollar” around a vintage confrontation between two men who live, in deed or in spirit, outside the law: Max Borlund, a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz with a worldly twinkle that basically allows him to parade himself as an impish assassin, and Joe Cribbens, a gambler and outlaw played by Willem Dafoe as the most live-and-let-live of sociopaths. The two have known each other a long time and collide in the opening scene, when Joe is being released from prison. But then they go their separate ways. The film turns its attention to Max on his latest mission-for-hire, which involves several characters you would never have seen in a Budd Boetticher movie of the ’50s, or even a Walter Hill Western of the ’70s or ’80s.
They include, for starters, the two folks he’s been hired to track down: Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan), the wife of a wealthy New Mexico businessman, and Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), the Black deserter from the U.S. Army who has taken her hostage and is demanding $10,000 in ransom — though, in fact, the hostage situation is a ruse. Elijah and Rachel have run off together, and the interracial “kidnap” element, within the context of the Western setting (the film takes place in 1897), evokes “The Searchers,” the twist being that in this case the people of color are not viewed through a racist lens. On the contrary: Hill is making an attempt to right the wrongs of the genre. He gives us two vital Black characters — along with Elijah, there is Sgt. Poe, who Max takes along as his partner on his mission down to Mexico. Poe is Elijah’s former Army comrade, and the two understand the world they’re in though disagree on how radically to fight against it.
On paper, this sounds like a fresh way to make a Western, and Burke invests Sgt. Poe with a rascal charisma that won’t quit. But Brandon Scott, who acts with magnetism and danger, is playing a character the movie gives the bum’s rush to. Elijah is set up as the moral pivot point of the story, but then, when the film arrives at the Mexican backwater town that most of it is set in, he’s slapped into prison and basically shut down. The movie has made us want to hear his voice, not see him shunted to the sidelines.
For a while, “Dead for a Dollar” unfolds in an entertaining fashion. Written by Hill, the movie is talkier than most contempo Westerns (like the ones that used to bathe Kevin Costner in wordless iconic majesty), and the threats bounce off each other with a certain literate macho showmanship. There are a couple of good card games, a fight between two men each brandishing a bullwhip (one is Sgt. Poe, and the racial symbolism of the weaponry sears), and a performance of fierce crispness from Brosnahan, who makes Rachel, in breaking away from her loathsome businessman husband (Hamish Linklater), like Nora in “A Doll’s House” crossed with Charles Bronson. In this saga of men, and one woman, who pretend to be good but have some bad in them, or maybe a lot, Benjamin Bratt plays the ubervillain, a Mexican criminal lord who terrorizes everyone with great elegance, and Bratt, as I’m always reminded of, is such a terrific actor — I wish Hill would have made an entire movie about his character.
Rachel is a pretty good character, but she’s at the center of things…until she isn’t. That’s true of just about everyone onscreen. Hill wants to “do justice” to each of these people, but the result is that “Dead for a Dollar” doesn’t have a dramatic core. It has actors we like to watch, doing what they do well (like Waltz playing a civilized badass), but it isn’t structured so that any of their fates get a rise out of us. There’s always something happening onscreen, but emotionally all of it has a weirdly staid quality. Characters we don’t expect to see killed off get killed off in a heartbeat, and while I respect the theoretical daring of that, it feels as if the film is losing pieces of itself. Instead of building, the tension dissipates. At the end, you think: Yes, that could have been based on a true story, but too bad he didn’t ditch the history and print the legend.