Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe co-star in a mostly shoddy western pastiche that lacks craft and compelling characters
Walter Hill, the director behind some of the best genre movies of the 70s and 80s, including The Warriors and Southern Comfort, hasn't given us a film since the misguided 2016 crime-thriller The Assignment. Now he returns with a Sergio Leone-inspired western riff that is content to bask in the tropes and traditions of that filmmaker's great works, casting Christoph Waltz – no stranger to the western himself – as a stoic gunslinger caught up in a complicated kidnapping plot gone array.
But whereas Leone's spaghetti westerns were able to transcend their origins as cheaply-made entertainments on account of his masterful direction and Ennio Morricone's distinctive music, Dead for a Dollar is an empty pastiche that apes their style – complete with Xander Rodzinski's mock-Morricone score – but winds up feeling more dated than the works that inspired it.
Of course, Leone pastiches are commonplace (though this one is actually dedicated to western director Budd Boetticher) and can be done well, even when they're just surface level evocations. But Hill's movie lacks a basic level of craft and focus; every take looks like it was the first one to be captured (possible, given the tiny budget), while the combination of amateurish camerawork, digital photography and cheap production design makes it hard to get past the fact we're watching actors standing on sets.
The convoluted story, which also throws Willem Dafoe into the mix as a devious convict with a bone to pick, follows the exploits of Waltz's bounty hunter Max Borlund, tasked with bringing back the wife (Rachel Brosnahan) of a sleazy businessman (Hamish Linklater), who has been captured by an army deserter named Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) and taken deep into dangerous Mexican territory – at least, that's what's been claimed. The movie is generous with its twists, turns and shifting allegiances, but there are far too many characters, and the messy, inelegant structure – not to mention Hill's obsession with fades and fade-outs – continually breaks the rhythm and makes the film (already long at two hours) feel endless. Dead for a Dollar is also overly talky, and not in a good way; the dialogue is repetitive and a bit on the bland side, shooting for slick and simple but coming up short.
Things aren't helped by what must be Waltz's least inspired turn in years; he looks uncharacteristically unenthused here, saddled permanently with a blank expression that suggests he's reminiscing on the days when he was making a Tarantino western instead. Dafoe is more interesting, though his character is inconsistent to the point of apathy (are we meant to like him or not?), while Rachel Brosnahan serves better, doing good work with what is a fairly underwritten part.
The film does, thankfully, kick into high gear in the last act, delivering a hefty, booming gun fight that fulfills at least some of the promise we'd associate with the director who made the far superior western The Long Riders. For all its intentions as a piece of harmless and unpretentious fun, though, the crudity of the filmmaking and the decision to deliver a homage with little subversion suggests this once great director might be somewhat over the hill.
Dead for a Dollar was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch