Starring: Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, Warren Burke, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Walter Hill
Mood: If you’ve been having a hard time focusing but really want to watch a Western so you need a movie that cycles through scenes quickly so you don’t have to focus on any part of the story for too long.
I don’t know how you can fail to make an amazing Western with Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, with the brilliant Walter Hill at the helm, but Dead for a Dollar is only decent.
It’s definitely worth a watch just for Waltz and Dafoe. But three days later, I’m legitimately struggling to recall any of the plot points, or some neat detail I’d tell a friend over beers.
It’s not a good sign when I can remember way more about the so-called horror Western Organ Trail – which I also watched this weekend, and which coincidentally missed the mark in pretty much all the same categories as Dead for a Dollar.
Maybe there’s something here that I’m missing. But I went into this movie after a mentally taxing work week ready to be entertained by literally ANYTHING, and I still ended up disappointed. Not because it was terrible, but because it could easily have been the best Western I’ve seen all year, it had all the ingredients, and then it just wasn’t.
Dead for a Dollar opens in Albuquerque, 1897. Here’s my high-level plot synopsis, which contains spoilers – IF you can spoil something that is fairly predictable:
- Two riders cross a desert, a pale woman who looks distractingly like she’s supposed to be Emily Blunt in The English, and a Black man
- An attractive older man with an accent visits an impish disheveled man in prison, and they exchange warnings not to cross one-another
- There’s a short black-and-white flashback that seems like it will be the first in a series of interconnected flashbacks with significant meaning throughout the movie – it’s not
- The accent man is suddenly in the desert for a clandestine meet-up with yet another guy, this one rich and smarmy
- Smarmy guy hires accent man to hunt down his wife and her kidnapper, and the army assigns a Black sergeant to help him because that’s clearly a good use of resources
- They head out and immediately (in movie time) run into trouble with a rich Mexican landowner and his posse of heavily armed guards
- The rich Mexican threatens to kill them if they don’t pay a tax for being on his land; they refuse, despite a stern talking-to from a Mexican lawyer, and for some reason the posse just accepts this and rides away
- In what’s intended to be a surprising twist but has been done WAY too many times for any shock value, the white lady and the Black man are revealed to be (gasp!) a couple on the run
- Accent man has scruples so he bails on his bounty hunting mission
- The impish disheveled man from the prison was released from jail and for some reason decided to go to straight to the exact same small town in Mexico, so he is conveniently hired by the rich Mexican to take down accent man
All of this was before the halfway point. I was staring at the remaining runtime like… how the hell is there still an hour to go?
The rest of the movie is pretty much a series of showdowns and killings between the various combinations of characters. It’s actually quite fun and there’s action galore – but it’s all been done before, and been done better.
Willem Dafoe is the perfect Western outlaw.
He already looks like he’s meant to be seen in a dusty sepia tone. As the nefarious Cribbens he’s cheeky, full of himself, perpetually grinning like he’s up to no good – and having the best time doing it. His eyes mock everyone around him for not being as clever and capable as he thinks he is. From his first scene in Dead for a Dollar to his last, Dafoe steals the show. Nay, Dafoe IS the show.
Waltz as the bounty hunter Borlund is also strong, playing the straight and good man – but that doesn’t mean he’s boring. He’s soft spoken and unhurried, and equally cool when he turns deadly in a gunfight. Although Borlund doesn’t have any kind of arc, Waltz keeps it entertaining by adding layers to his delivery.
Warren Burke is thoroughly enjoyable as the chatterbox army sergeant who happens to be a badass with a bullwhip. The incredibly expressive Luis Chávez is another standout as the nervous lawyer Esteban, and it’s cool to see a Latinx character in the Old West who isn’t a seedy criminal. Esteban’s primary occupation is looking out for the interests of the tyrannical Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt).
Rachel Brosnahan and Tibero are the weak links here.
Brosnahan delivers a stiff, one-note performance. She’s trying to do this defiant, capable woman, but she struggles to add depth and give us anything but a scolding scowl – even when she’s with her lover. It may have been a choice, conveying an abused woman as blunt and cold toward everyone, but unfortunately it’s too hard to like her and she doesn’t feel like an authentic person.
Bratt himself is great. He and his posse have the best facial hair in the film, and I would love to see him in another Western. His character is just totally f*cking useless, which is a terrible thing for a villain. Tiberio backs down from a verbal challenge from a white American. He has a heavily armed posse but hires Cribbens, a poker-playing American stranger, to kill Borlund.
This places the entire burden of villainy on Cribbens, and that dude is just doing his own thing. Dafoe doesn’t get nearly enough screentime to carry the movie, though I don’t doubt he could have if the script allowed it.
Walter Hill, who has given us many amazing movies including The Long Riders, wrote AND directed Dead for a Dollar. It seems like that made him too close to the project to see his blind spots, and maybe nobody gave him feedback because he’s THE Walter Hill.
There’s just nothing mind-blowing about the story. The plot feels thin and rushed, especially for this cast and budget. There was potential to make another 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit, something so well-made that it brings more fans to the genre. But everything moves way too fast to establish tension, the scenes feel cut short, and the villains don’t stand a chance.
Plus, it feels too CLEAN. The scenic shots are gorgeous, but the sets feel freshly built, the score feels misaligned, the horses’ tack is unused, the hats are unsoiled, and the costumes are as carefully distressed as GAP jeans.
Several of the actors give excellent performances, but everything around them just isn’t up to par, and that’s too bad. I would watch Dead for a Dollar again, though, if somebody wanted to see it. Hopefully I’d see something to change my mind. I sure do love Willem Dafoe.