Walter Hill already has two very decent westerns tucked into his bandolier with 1980’s The Long Riders and the underrated Jeff Bridges-starring Wild Bill (1985), but the veteran genre filmmaker can’t make it three for three with this retro-feeling bounty hunter flick. Sluggishly paced, stodgily scripted and curiously edited, it’s not so much a bullet ballet as a creaky dance across an abandoned saloon.
The 80-year-old Calfornian dedicates the film to Budd Boetticher and there’s shades of the legendary western director’s Randolph Scott classic Ride Lonesome in its tale of a morally conflicted bounty hunter torn between coin and conscience.
Here, it’s Christoph Waltz saddling up as Max Borlund, an ice-blooded gunslinger hired by an unscrupulous businessman to track down his abducted wife (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan) and the deserting buffalo soldier (Brandon Scott) who supposedly made off with her across the Mexican border.
On paper, it’s a similar role to the one Waltz made such hay with in Django Unchained, but Hill’s screenplay plays things deathly straight, keeping the actor’s scene-stealing flamboyance firmly under wraps. To say that it doesn’t leave him or Willem Dafoe, as Borlund’s horse rustling nemesis, well-served is an understatement. At one point Dafoe finds himself talking to a cockroach.
All the western tropes are out in force – nervy poker games, dusty rides across desert plains, Mexican banditos and an inescapable sense that it’s all heading for a final showdown in which a lot of people will be shot off horses – but rather than immersing you in the dying embers of the Old West, the sludgy sepia colour palette and tight framing only work to highlight its budgetary constraints.
It’s not so much a bullet ballet as a creaky dance across an abandoned saloon
Brosnahan, though, is strong as a resilient woman taking charge of her own destiny in a violent male world, proving herself lethal with a puny-looking derringer as the baddies circle.
The racial dimension of her relationship with Brandon Scott’s Black runaway trooper, set up early in the story, is oddly downplayed in what follows – although a platonic connection of sorts does emerge between the runaway wife and her conflicted bounty hunter. She challenges his complacently amoral worldview and throws his well-grooved methods out of whack in a way that goes some way to soup up the stakes. Alas, not nearly far enough.
Dead for a Dollar premiered at the Venice Film Festival.