REVIEW: Dead for a Dollar, honour in the desert sun

Situations are often much more complicated than they first appear. For example, someone could rob a store which would make them a criminal. But perhaps they haven’t been able to find employment, and they need the money to feed their family. Were there intentions good, or did the evil nature of the action dispel with that line of thinking? A situation isn’t necessarily what it appears to be, and sometimes that misunderstanding can be deadly.

Dead for a Dollar is a Western about a man caught in a misunderstanding, and what he decides to do. That man is Max Borlund (played by Christoph Waltz from Django Unchained and Spectre), a bounty hunter in New Mexico in the end of the 19th century. He’s hired to find Elijah Johnson, a black army deserter (played by Brendan Scott from the Last of Us) who allegedly kidnapped Rachel Price, the white wife (played by Rachel Brosnahan from the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) of a rich man. But as he pursues the two, he begins to realize that she wasn’t kidnapped.

Warren Burke, Rachel Brosnahan and Christoph Waltz in Dead for a Dollar, courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

Complicating matters is the fact that Borlund is being followed by recently released criminal Joe Cribbens (played by Willem Dafoe from Spider-Man and the Florida Project). Borlund sent Cribbens to prison for several years on charges of murder, but Cribbens has always insisted that the people he killed, he killed in self-defense. They all tried to kill him, he merely survived. But for what could be the first time in his life, Cribbens is considering murdering the man who locked him up.

This film premiered at this year’s edition of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s directed by Walter Hill, a legendary filmmaker who made the Warriors, 48 Hrs., and Geronimo: An American Legend. No stranger to the Western, here Hill has made a slower, somber piece. Many shots of the film are seen through cloth, moving gingerly. This film takes its time with the story, which works to its benefit.

With the turn of the 20th century upon the main cast, several of the characters are looking ahead to the changes that could come. Brosnahan and Scott’s characters hope for a better life, one more inclusive and less racist. But they’ve got the old world against them, and change is the enemy of the old world.

Dead for a Dollar 3
Willem Dafoe in Dead for a Dollar, courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

Brosnahan’s performance feels distinctly modern. At times she feels like a 20th century woman stuck in the old West. She’s surrounded by several people who are set in their ways, including both Waltz and Dafoe’s characters. Waltz plays a character who’s entirely focused on his job. He finds bad guys, catches them, and collects his money. That’s all that matters to him, regardless of the morality of the job. But as the film proceeds, he begins to realize that morality plays a part in this new century. The world is evolving, and he may have to as well.

As for Dafoe’s character, it seems like he grew into that old world state of mind. We don’t see much of his younger life, but as the film moves forward he becomes more determined to seek what he sees as rightly deserved vengeance. Dafoe and Waltz’s character arcs unfold in tandem throughout the film, intersecting as the narrative proceeds down a timeless path.

Dead for a Dollar is a film about the changing times, and the pushback against that. But it’s also a classical Western, and one that is incredibly enjoyable. Fans of Django Unchained will certainly enjoy seeing Waltz as another bounty hunter, and Willem Dafoe always makes for a terrific villain. You can check this film out on your VOD service of choice.


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