Oct 11, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
Dead For A Dollar looks like it was shot for a dollar. The newly released western’s shoddiness is all the more shameful given the talent involved. Anyone keen to see Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz square off in a shoot ‘em up—directed by Walter Hill (famed for western revivals like Southern Comfort and action classics like 48 Hrs.), no less—will be disappointed with this film.
Waltz stars as European expat bounty hunter Max Borlund. He opens the movie by confronting Dafoe’s Joe Cribbens, an outlaw the bounty hunter apprehended, shortly before Dafoe’s character’s release from a Mexico border town jail. The scene should crackle with their star power as the actors glare at each other between prison bars. Instead, it plods under the weight of weak dialogue, despite both heavyweight actors’ visible straining.
Much of the supporting cast fares worse, especially Rachel Brosnahan and Brandon Scott. They respectively play Rachel Kidd and Elijah Jones—the former fleeing to Mexico from her brutal aristocratic American husband, and the latter deserting the army. Ditto Warren Burke as Sergeant Poe, Jones’ fellow African-American infantryman now tasked with helping Borlund apprehend the runaway soldier accused of kidnapping the supposed damsel in distress. These smaller names are left to flounder, considering masters like Dafoe and Waltz can’t muster sparks from a screenplay as dishwater-dull as the movie’s lensing. (Hill might be striving for sepia to evoke old West photographs, but the cinematography only ends up looking like an outdated social media filter.)
Thankfully, some of the supporting players bring Dead For A Dollar to life in some fleeting scenes. Hamish Linklater has pulpy fun as Rachel’s vindictive husband toward the movie’s tail end. Above all, Benjamin Bratt is an arrestingly believable badass as tyrannical crime lord Tiberio Vargas, who meddles with the bounty hunters Borlund and Poe’s mission to retrieve Rachel.
Bratt’s has a high stakes (as in: life and death) poker game with Dafoe’s just-made-bail ex-con in a fun-enough scene midway through. But again, it should’ve been a classic showdown, given both character actors’ prowess. If not, could they not have at least chewed the scenery in a so-bad-it’s good sendup of Western tropes? After all, Dafoe is no stranger to downright gnashing trashy dialogue. Sadly Hill either gave Dafoe bad notes, or the actor decided to play against type, forcing his character arc to oddly plateau.
To be fair, there are subtleties in Dafoe’s twang that make some of his Dead for a Dollar character’s monologues ring true. And one scene where his flinty gaze is enveloped in gun smoke is sure to give viewers goosebumps. However, like Waltz, Dafoe too often plays the blandly penned scenes straight, making Dead For A Dollar drag. One notable exception: a trademark Dafoe rant against cockroaches that would make noted over the top monologuists Christopher Walken and Nicolas Cage tremble with envy.
Too bad Dead For A Dollar doesn’t go for broke more often. Instead, the movie’s financiers appear to have gone broke paying their big names actors to be in Hill’s long shot at a hyper-realistic western. (www.quiverdistribution.com)
Author rating: 3/10
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