“I need a drink,” offers a character (who will remain anonymous to avoid spoilers) as the final line of “Dead for a Dollar” director walter hillThe return to the West. It’s a note of exasperation, not triumph, after the genre’s inevitable shootout. And the line is perhaps the only way to end a film whose main function is to shed the trappings of Western myth and leave behind only people who do a job. Cowboys and their ilk also have time off.
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The Ties in Hill’s incarnation of the West, which he co-wrote with matthew harris, they are contractual first, ethical second. The two men at the crux of the film exist on both sides of the law: christoph waltzMax Borlund is a private investigator, while Willem Dafoe‘s Joe Cribbens is a gaming outlaw. But what ultimately unites them in grudging respect is an economic axis in fidelity to themselves above all else. These are not noble men bound by some lofty code of morality or manifest destiny. These are workers doing their duty to the almighty dollar, annoyed first and foremost by threats to complete the task at hand.
It’s a bit dubious to thwart your inner compasses so boldly with Mexican businessmen and law enforcement officials who witness a conflict spilling over the southern border. However, it draws an undeniable contrast between the world-weary duo and everyone around them. And, to be fair, their sensibilities also clash with the young guns who set the story in motion. Hamish LinklaterRich businessman Martin Kidd sends prankster but outspoken Max to retrieve his wife, Rachel BrosnahanIndependent-minded Rachel from the clutches of Buffalo Soldier Elijah Jones (brandon-scott).
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However, that’s not the whole story, as Max finds out from his partner, Elijah’s military buddy Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke). It’s not necessarily a kidnapping if someone leaves of their own volition, and Rachel stands on her heels to resist Max returning her reward. When pressed by her mission target if he has a code, Max replies in the affirmative and states that he tries not to question it. However, the clever and slightly cunning gunslinger must submit to a state of silent self-examination as he debates standing by his truth or performing a task based on a lie.
Elsewhere in Mexico, Joe returns to his mischievous card counting ways and confronts benjamin brattThe powerful landowner Tiberio Vargas. To make amends for eliminating a powerful target, he agrees to pay back the debt by putting a familiar target in his crosshairs: Max. “Dead for a Dollar” becomes interesting and entertaining when it becomes clear that the frequently formidable enemies are on a collision course. For too long, though, the two men seem to be operating on tracks that seem to be heading in opposite directions and spinning their wheels in repetitive banality.
It doesn’t help that Hill treats characters beyond Max and Joe as merely tangential to this classic fight between lawman and outlaw, even if those roles are stretched a bit for this particular pair. “Dead for a Dollar” attempts to weave elements of race and gender together to add a contemporary twist to the proceedings, but these attempts fail because the film does not care enough to develop them within the context of the story. It’s clear that the film’s interests lie squarely and solely within the realm of the genre’s wheelhouse: white men.
Such an approach is not disqualifying, but it demands more than the superficial characterization given to Max and Joe. The complexities of each companion extend a step beyond the archetypes presented in the synopsis. When loyalties go awry, the complication is obvious and completely expected. The ever-charismatic Waltz and Dafoe manage to add a bit of color to the characters, but that can only go within the confines of barely drawn figures. Any larger thematic resonance does not break through.
“Dead for a Dollar” confuses digging deep with playing in a sandbox. This streamlined simplicity might be enough for a B-movie, but it clearly has bigger ambitions. The desaturated palette of browns and grays suggests a more tired West approaching its twilight, as do the aging characters. The potential for rich commentary on the genre, or even the varied and storied career of octogenarian Walter Hill, is frustratingly underexplored in the name of current affairs and cheap entertainment.
But hey, Hill himself is just a man with a job. Who can fault his choice to live the very spirit of his film? “Dead for a Dollar” provides a decently intriguing thread in the Western setting that lurks a few inches below the surface. No one can say that Hill reneged on his end of the bargain, which may be all he cares about in the end. [C+]
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