For many years now Venice has been a respectful platform for those big-name directors of the 1970s and early ’80s who are happy to go back into the fray long after those juicy studio budgets dried up: Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter and — to a lesser extent — George Romero all found a home here for their late-period passion projects. Walter Hill, now 80, joins their ranks with an improbably youthful horse opera, and while it shows up the limitations of both writing and shooting a Western in the modern age (concessions to modern sensitivities have to be made, and digital cinematography somehow just doesn’t cut it with the subject matter), it’s nevertheless a wickedly enjoyable genre romp and full of violent surprises.
Hill dedicates his film to Budd Boetticher, which is a shame as it has already given critics permission not to think any harder about a film that is actually more of a spaghetti Western in style, themes and music (Xander Rodzinski’s score is impressive, even if it never quite finds the Morricone-style motif it seems to be looking for). And because of the Boetticher reference, many have latched on to its hero character as a surrogate for his favored Randolph Scott, but there’s also a lot of shifty Eli Wallach in the form of Max Borlund, a gnomic, meticulous European bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz.
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Borlund has been hired by a businessman named Kidd to return his wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) who has apparently been kidnapped by a renegade Buffalo soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) for a serious ransom. To track down the missing pair, Borlund is assigned Black cavalryman Sergeant Poe (Warren Burke), but their mission is disrupted, first by the arrival of vicious crime boss Tiberio Varga (Benjamin Bratt) and then the return of an old enemy from Borlund’s past: Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), a wily bank robber and card shark he helped put away for five years. How these stories come together is fun and fresh in the way that the original slew of spaghetti Westerns were, playing up the humor missing from the John Ford years and enjoying the anarchy of the frontier spirit rather than eulogizing the lawman that wants to shut everything down.
In that respect, Waltz is a great choice for Borlund — always thinking, always recalibrating, never stressing — which allows chaos to swirl around him like the opening scenes of the 1970 film Matalo! Playing the yin to his yang, and channeling more than a hint of the kind of rebels played by The Big Gundown’s Tomas Milian, Dafoe is equally good, and the curtain-raising opening scene makes it clear that whatever happens along the way, it’s clearly these two that are heading for the showdown.
Any Western before 1971’s The Hired Hand traditionally had a problem with female characters, and Dead For a Dollar tries valiantly to defy those stereotypes — the feisty Rachel is a strong-headed woman who turns out to detest what she has turned into, a “decoration wife” to the increasingly odious and duplicitous Kidd. And where U.S. Westerns tended to dwell on the adversarial relationship between the pioneers and Native American communities, Hill takes up the spaghetti Western’s fascination for Mexico, creating an indelible character for Luis Chavez as Esteban, Tiberio’s educated but amoral go-between. Poe and Jones are likewise given strong backstories and agency, and what at first might seem like the soft-pedalling of race gives Hill license to pull the rug out from under us when the bullets start flying. So much so that it really does seem we might end up in the no-holds-barred fatalism of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence.
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Sadly, the incongruous glow of digital and the dull use of sepia throughout tends to tamp down the excitement, creating a distracting conflict between the film’s ultra-modernity and nostalgia. It still, however, reveals a master’s eye for film history and reminds us of the Western’s power for political comment, which the Italians realized well before Sam Peckinpah — Corbucci’s Django predates The Wild Bunch by three years. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is why Dead For a Dollar was invited here.