The return of the B-movie that transcends
1897. America’s first full century is coming to an end. Technological innovations such as railroads, telegraphs, rapid-fire weapons, and Edison’s inventions made America smaller and more manageable. Yet in the New Mexico Territory, encroaching modernity seems distant and irrelevant. Even more in old Mexico, setting for a new western, Death for a dollar.
Here, the way of the gun still reigns, and a wanderer like Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) can make a career out of bounty hunting, doling out a legal form of frontier justice by working for a fee but following a certain code. His natural enemies can also live briefly but successfully as antiquated assassins, as does Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), a chip on his shoulder since Borlund put him behind bars. Even so, this life cannot last forever.
As Borlund roams this magnificent wasteland, a wealthy businessman, Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater), hires his services. The mission seems simple. Kidd’s wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), has been kidnapped by Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), an American soldier Buffalo AWOL – nickname for a member of an all-black regiment – who fled beyond the Mexican border. Kidd wants her back. The Army loans Max another Buffalo Soldier, Sgt. Poe (Warren SL Burke), to help.
Borlund soon learns that this hostage scenario is a lie and that Rachel’s husband intends to kill her. Now Max must choose: continue his life as a bounty hunter without question or use his talents to side with civilization: two black men fleeing subjugation, a restless Eastern woman fleeing family neglect and domestic violence to find respect, a Mexican chief magistrate protecting his town and townspeople seeking their lives – against wilder and crueler forces of the past, present and future – an honorable Texas shooter, a crime lord Mexican and a sleazy California businessman with political aspirations.
dead for a dollar is a B-movie that resembles a spaghetti western in plot and basic setting. There is even a 1968 Italian Western titled dead for a dollarand the title recalls Sergio Leone’s famous “dollar trilogy”. dead for a dollar also looks like the films of director Walter Hill’s mentor, Sam Peckinpah – think B-Western Ride the High Country Where the western miniseries. But Hill’s cinema does not contain Leone’s cynicism about humanity or Peckinpah’s pessimism about late civilization. No, filmmaker Hill looks the most like dead for a dollar is the king of 1950s westerns, Budd Boetticher, to whom Hill dedicates his latest film.
With a few adjustments, one can easily imagine dead for a dollar as part of Boetticher’s universe, in particular the Ranown cycle of westerns with Randolph Scott. It’s not hard to see Randolph Scott as Borlund, Lee Marvin as Cribbens, John Carroll as Martin Kidd, Gail Russell as Rachel Kidd, etc. Like Boetticher, Hill often works in genre territory, has a sense of humor and wit, is a filmmaker with traditional aims but bold vision, has a strong moral and spiritual foundation, and fills his films with ethical and philosophical debates between characters who constantly confront each other. Uninterested in reconstructing the genre, Hill attempts, alternatively, to elevate it, abhorring postmodern contempt, cynicism and irony.
dead for a dollarThe universe of is deeply moral. The characters have codes to follow. How they interact with these universal and individual laws and the world around them affects their future. Actions, virtues and vices determine spiritual and physical consequences. Borlund’s adherence to his bounty hunter code protects him, while his worldview informs him to adhere or break. Cribbens knows that all men must die, so they must live honorably. Slimy Martin Kidd dodges both the laws of God and those of men; it can’t end well. Rachel, Elijah, and Poe all want different kinds of freedom; they are mostly free in spirit, but their prudence or recklessness determines their free reality. The gods reward bravery, commitment, community, compassion, consistency, devotion, honesty, leadership, and perseverance. As in the classic literature that Hill loves – Ernest Hemmingway, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Homer and the Holy Bible – men receive their just merits.
As a storyteller, Walter Hill’s beloved classics guide and influence him. Hill has often traced his influences from Peckinpah to Akira Kurosawa to John Ford to DW Griffith to Charles Dickens. Like Ford summoning Homer in ResearchersHill presents dead for a dollarBorlund’s protagonist as Odysseus, far from home and civilization, similar to historical figure Chris Madsen after whom Hill modeled Max. dead for a dollar also explores Hill’s other common interests, including national identity, gender complications, class, ethnicity and race differences and relations, debated within the historical context of the story.
The most of dead for a dollar fulfills Hill’s ambition, but unfortunately it may have been cheaply produced. The pacing feels jarring in the first few minutes, as we’re introduced to the story and characters too quickly and some scenes start and end too abruptly. Other scenes warranted further care or more care, with occasional errors appearing in acting, cinematography, editing, use of props, and visual effects. The music is largely average.
Still, these issues shouldn’t spoil an otherwise excellent movie beyond appreciation, and its quirks balance out with a new watch. dead for a dollar highlights some of the best character actors working today. Hill’s dialogue stays crisp, and he propels the story – each character serving an integral purpose – to a finale where various plot threads interlock like a good poem, with surprises for characters and audience alike. The plot takes time precisely where it needs to. The violence is chilling and hard-hitting, a Hill trademark. Place names and dates situate us in history. Lloyd Ahern II’s cinematic choices still match Hill’s intentions and are reminiscent of the pioneers of Coens/Roger Deakins’ digital color correction techniques in O brother, where are you?, dead for a dollarThe harsh sepia tint of exemplifies the American Southwest sun stabbing everything, blinding the inhabitants, scorching the earth. There’s a lot to enjoy here.
Yes, dead for a dollar is low budget. Even its distributors apparently view it as a second-tier non-event – although the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, they limited its theatrical release and released it day and night on video at the request. Hill deserves better. Yet, as he and his fellow New Hollywood directors know, in the midst of a period of big-budget and corporate filmmaking, good B-movies — those that transcend their circumstances like Boetticher’s – may be a necessary fix. Time will tell if dead for a dollar transcends. Many of Hill’s works have. For the moment, dead for a dollar is definitely an idiosyncratic movie worth watching.