Dead for a Dollar

There’s a genuine western lost under a sheen in Walter Hill’s Dead For a Dollar.

The story is appropriately straight-forward without being conventional, and sets itself up for some solid heroes and villains.  Bounty hunter Max Borlund (Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) is hired by an intimidating gentleman, Martin Kidd (Unicorn Store’s Hamish Linklater), to find his missing wife Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan).  When Borlund, along with his assistant Sergeant Poe (Warren Poe), find Rachel and her captor Elijah (Brandon Scott), there’s more to the kidnapping than meets the eye.  Meanwhile, agitated outlaw Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe), who has history with Max, is hot on Borlund’s trail.

Dead for a Dollar never feels too cluttered or busy and sticks close to the minimalist style of traditional westerns.  The dialogue in Hill’s screenplay fits each character, the performances are good (with Brosnahan being the standout), and the shootouts are exciting.  However, I’m truly baffled by “the look” of Dead for a Dollar.  I don’t know if the scenes have unnecessarily soft lighting or if the film became overproduced in the editing bay, but Dead for a Dollar looks washed-out and smooth.  The appearance is akin to a midday soap opera or a children’s television show, and it totally works against the gritty genre Walter Hill is aiming to emulate.

The visuals are not as noticeable when the production moves outdoors or if there’s a lot of action happening on the screen.  However, Hill likes to provide close-ups to hone in on tense character exchanges.  I’m sure the actors appreciated that direction in the moment, but the payoffs look staged in this glaringly artificial movie


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