Walter Hill’s Western Fires Blanks

(From left) Warren Burke, Rachel Brosnahan and Christoph Waltz in Walter Hill's Dead For A Dollar

(Ffrom left) Warren Burke, Rachel Brosnahan and Christoph Waltz at Walter Hills Dead for a dollar
photo: quiver distribution

Director Walter Hill is 80 years old. So unless he’s putting together something really good real quick, his most memorable directorial achievement will be Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte’s 1982 action comedy 48 hours. That would be a shame because The film, while terrific, is hardly Hill’s most accomplished work. His 1979 cult classic the Warriors is better prepared movie and 1978 The driver is the best car movie you have ever seen. But it’s his westerns – the frolics Dead for a dollar regardless – which have earned him a place in directorial heaven. His most notable westerns, such as the pilot for HBO deadwood and the 1980 drama The Long Ridersgalloped into town on a familiar-looking horse, and their laconic border energy and outbursts of violence expertly cleaved the difference between reverent tradition and daring revisionism.

in the Dead for a dollarHill also doesn’t return to the visual extremes he flirted with in the 1995s Wild bill nor does he honor his mentor, director Sam Peckinpah, with slow-motion balletic brutality. Where Hill seems to be going, other than nowhere fast, is revealed on a final credit page which reads: In Memory of Budd Boetticher. An unsung B-movie director who was briefly a matador in Mexico before turning to film, Boetticher is best known for his Old West dramas starring cowboy icon Randolph Scott, particularly from the 1957s The high T and 1960s Comanche station. His films were simple in style, but more psychologically questioning than one gives them credit for. Boetticher once boiled down the allure of the western, saying: “a man has a job to do, or a few men. They try against tremendous odds. They do.” And that brings us to Dead for a dollarabout a bounty hunter named Max Borlund who has a job to do, and he’s doing it.

Borlund, Randolph Scott’s deputy for the film, is played by a stoic and ill-fitting Christoph Waltz, whose trademark twinkle and sly grin have been snuffed out by the pressures of being a man of honor living in 1897. Borlund was hired by a “prominent businessman” Martin Kidd (a very handsome Hamish Linklatuh) to find his wife, Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), who has been kidnapped by Buffalo Soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). Jones has a three-week lead on any pursuers, but Borlund is assigned a Buffalo soldier named Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to help with the search.

Speaking of which, if this all sounds like it could be a riff The SeekersHill, the co-author of the Dead for a dollar Screenplay co-written by Matt Harris, doesn’t take the bait. In fact, he barely nibbles at it, leaving some promising social comments on the table. A handful of scenes are given to Elijah and Poe, which Hill largely squanders by assiduously sidestepping the racial issues of the time. Only Poe’s brief bullwhip fight has a sting when a black man uses a torture weapon on his white tormentor. Rachel better get away. She’s a stern-looking teacher with a derringer whose ultimate motives give her some agency, though Brosnahan can’t find much nuance in that.

The film’s visuals are captured in a John Ford-approved widescreen format, meaning plenty of pre-canned, albeit beautiful, shots of the endless levels. Otherwise, its appearance is Boetticher-simple, but too digitally smooth with no grain. Many of the interiors look like new stage sets. When blocking for the final shootout, Borlund mostly stands in wide areas but never gets shot. This Midday-style climax offers a contact high of double-barreled violence, even though we don’t give a damn what happens to anyone.

DEAD FOR A DOLLAR Trailer (2022)

In fact, rarely has a hero created so little suspense while so many villains lined up to kill him. Willem Dafoe has a great time as Joe Cribbens, a Texas horse thief who was jailed by Borlund five years ago. Their first confrontation suggests that he is the film’s main villain. Instead, Borlund faces off against Mexican BMOC Tiberio (Benjamin Bratt, who is also having fun) in the boss fight. whose vanguard Esteban is played by a perfectly cast Luis Chávez. Hill liberally moves these pawns around as alliances shift and lies are exposed, giving everyone the opportunity to reveal or reclaim their moral standing, including the Mexican authorities, who rarely do well in westerns. But if Hill is revisionist, then we need to redefine the word, because most of the characters come and go, live and die as needed, rather than crossing certain boundaries.

Ultimately, Hill performs his duties like an employee Dead for a dollar, much like Max Borland is a hire man down in Mexico. Hill has lent his sleek, masculine style to a surprisingly diverse number of films, including the 1985 Richard Pryor quote-unquote comedy, Brewster’s millionsand the 2000 sci-fi dud supernova (which he finished in post-production and from which his name was removed). But bringing so little to the genre it’s most associated with is particularly disappointing. As Hill, the Emmy-winning producer of the 2006 Western miniseries broken track once said, “The old actors used to say that if you got the right horse and the right hat, the rest went downhill.” With Hills Dead for a dollar, which turns out to be wrong. Although he might want to note the part about going down. Walter Hill’s Western Fires Blanks

Andrew Schnitker

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