Hill specializes in pulpy genre flicks full of bold characters and catchy dialogue. So, his latest film, the rough and gritty western Dead for a Dollar falls right into his wheelhouse. It’s been decades since this writer-director churned out his iconic film run and he hasn’t directed a movie since 2016’s poorly received, The Assignment.
Having the 80-year-old step behind the camera at this stage in his career is like watching a retired gunslinger saddle up for one last bounty. So where does Dead for a Dollar rank in Hill’s iconic filmography? Is it top-tier Hill, or the work of a beloved auteur past their prime?
When a swaggering hotshot’s wife (Rachel Brosnahan) gets kidnapped and ransomed by a rogue Buffalo soldier (Brandon Scott), he hires grizzled bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) to head into Mexico and bring her back. The mission gets even more complicated when Max’s old rival Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) teams up with ruthless local outlaw Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt) to settle an old score.
Westerns are by far the most cliché films in all of cinema. As soon as you sit down to watch a western you know you’re in for 2 hours of rugged hombres, dusty saloons, and shootouts on Mainstreet. For better and for worse, Dead for a Dollar doesn’t do a damn thing to break the mould. There’s something comforting about sitting back and settling into a western’s familiar rhythms. The problem with Dead for a Dollar is it’s all too content regurgitating a string of clichés.
Dead for a Dollar isn’t awful, but it’s entirely forgettable. Lacklustre dialogue, uneven performances, and drab visuals make much of the film feel like a snooze. The movie isn’t without its pleasures, though. The hard-working headlining cast keeps the film from becoming a total slog.
Brosnahan and Waltz both deliver committed performances. They’re the best part of each scene they’re in, but their solid work can’t salvage the lacklustre script. The characters and the world they inhabit feel joyless and dreary, but not in a cool and stoic Man with No Name sort of way. The uneven turns from the supporting cast, and clumsy editing, sap all the life from the film.
Dafoe is as magnetic and unhinged as ever, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with him. He goes off on a side adventure that feels disconnected from the main story. You can almost see the movie spinning its wheels until it’s time to throw crazy-ass Ol’ Joe back into the fold. Dafoe has so little to do that he spends a scene speaking to a cockroach.
Dead for a Dollar’s languid pacing is what ultimately derails the film. The multiple plotlines don’t flow together, making things feel stilted and disjointed. And the choppy pacing keeps the story from building any sense of tension. A great western’s plot charges towards the climax with the fury of a wild bronco, but Dead for a Dollar’s story just oozes ahead like old molasses.
Dead for a Dollar doesn’t even live up to its kickass name. It’s a by-the-numbers western that wastes its talented cast. It lacks the thrills, standout characters, and sense of danger long-time fans have come to expect from Hill. If you’re a western flick diehard this movie will do in a pinch, as long as you go in with low expectations. They should have titled this one Dead on Arrival.