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


Walter Hill started working as a writer and director right around the same time as “New Hollywood” legends Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. But while those guys were turning their affection for old genre pictures into Oscar-winning pop-art, Hill always seemed more interested in making the leanest, toughest, most entertaining action movies he could — and was especially devoted to keeping the traditions of the American western 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. This is a low-budget project that looks like it was made on the cheap, with minimal sets and flat lighting, overlaid with the kind of sepia haze common to straight-to-video westerns. But it’s meaningful that Hill dedicates the movie to the late Budd Boetticher, who made a handful of similarly thrilling, low-frills westerns in the 1950s. This is not an epic; nor is it meant to be. It’s a snappy story about a bunch of violent men — and one particular woman, anxious to get clear of them.

Rachel Brosnahan plays the woman, Rachel Kidd, who escapes her rich, abusive husband Martin (Hamish Linklater) and slips across the border to 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; but their mission becomes more difficult when they find they have to face off against gunfighting gambler Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), local crime boss Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt) and Rachel herself, who doesn’t necessarily want to be saved.

With so many pieces in play, “Dead for a Dollar” can seem a little convoluted at first. But it doesn’t take long for everyone to make 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 money to make his movie look as polished as his own “The Long Riders” or “Wild Bill,” he can still write crackling dialogue, and he can still stage a shootout as well as anyone ever has.

“Dead for a Dollar” isn’t an instant classic, but then neither were Boetticher’s films. Decades later, critics began to appreciate their simplicity, and the way they used plot and action to reveal something about the hard-boiled characters of the Old West — with their independent spirits, deep grudges and quick tempers.

Boetticher had Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin, fixing each other with steely glares and trading threats. Hill has Waltz and Dafoe, circling each other, waiting for the moment to strike. It’s a formula that still works: Strong actors, under the blazing western sun, playing characters squaring off in a sparse, mostly lawless landscape, where whomever is left standing determines which side was right.

‘Dead for a Dollar’

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

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 30, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Newhall; Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD


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