‘Dead for a Dollar’ review: Walter Hill returns to the Old West

Walter Hill began writing and directing around the same time as New Hollywood legends Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. But while these guys turned their fondness for old genre imagery into Oscar-winning pop art, Hill seemed increasingly interested in making the leanest, toughest, most entertaining action films he could – and was particularly keen to honor American traditions keep westerns alive.

Hill’s new film Dead for a Dollar – his first in six years – is clearly a labor of love, not just for Hill but for his incredible cast as well. This is a low-budget project that looks like it was made cheaply, with minimal sets and flat lighting overlaid with the kind of sepia haze common to direct-to-video Westerns. But it’s significant that Hill dedicated the film to the late Budd Boetticher, who directed a handful of similarly suspenseful, no-frills westerns in the 1950s. This is not an epic; neither should it be. It’s a scathing tale about a bunch of violent men – and a certain woman who’s out to get rid of them.

Rachel Brosnahan plays wife Rachel Kidd, who escapes her rich, abusive husband Martin (Hamish Linklater) and slips across the border into Mexico with an AWOL Black soldier, Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). Martin hires bounty hunter Max Borland (Christoph Waltz) and another black soldier, Sgt. Poe (Warren Burke), to find Rachel; However, their mission becomes more difficult when they find themselves facing off against gunman-player Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), local crime boss Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt) and Rachel herself, who doesn’t necessarily want to be rescued.

With so many characters, Dead for a Dollar can seem a little confusing at first. But it’s not long before everyone makes their way to Mexico, where they engage in a series of standoffs — sometimes with guns, sometimes with words. And while Hill may not have had the cash to make his film look as polished as his own The Long Riders or Wild Bill, he can still write sizzling dialogue and direct a gunfight as well as anyone.

Dead for a Dollar isn’t an instant classic, but neither were Boetticher’s films. Decades later, critics began to appreciate its simplicity and the way it used plot and action to reveal something about the hard-nosed characters of the Old West – with their independent minds, deep grudges, and quick tempers.

Boetticher had Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin fixing each other with steely stares and mutual threats. Hill has Waltz and Dafoe circling each other waiting for the moment to strike. It’s a formula that still works: under the blazing Western sun, strong actors play characters who hold their own in a barren, mostly lawless landscape where whoever’s left determines which side is right.

“Dead for a Dollar”

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

Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes

To play: Begins September 30, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Lämmle city center 5, Encino; Lammle Newhall; Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-29/review-dead-for-a-dollar-walter-hill-western-rachel-brosnahan-christoph-waltz ‘Dead for a Dollar’ review: Walter Hill returns to the Old West

Sarah Ridley

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