Dead for a Dollar: I’d Buy That, by David Bax
Let’s just start off by acknowledging that Walter Hill‘s Dead for a Dollar is a good movie because I want that to be the first thing you read before I lay out some of the problems with it. The main thing is that it looks cheap. Being cheap is not a problem in and of itself; plenty of cheap movies can look like a million bucks in the right hands. But Dead for a Dollar just looks cheap–cheaper than it probably is, in fact–because of a decision to first light most of it flatly and brightly and then add filter effects in post-production. It looks like an Instagram post made by someone (like me) who’s not very good at Instagram.
That’s all unfortunate but, once accepted, it shouldn’t get in the way of your having a good time with the movie. I mean, it’s a Walter Hill film, for Christ’s sake, and it’s got Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz and Rachel Brosnahan in it (with some Benjamin Bratt and Hamish Linklater thrown in for good measure). Add to that a cheekily jazzy score from Xander Rodzinski and you’ve got an undeniable recipe for a hoot and a half.
Oh, that reminds me. Apart from Rodzinski’s score, Dead for a Dollar‘s sound mix also adds to the low rent feel mentioned above. It’s oddly hollow, separated from the action.
Which is too bad, I suppose, given how much of the movie is taken up by characters talking to one another. Dead for a Dollar is a part of the great tradition of B-movies that spend their budget on enough flash to make a kick-ass trailer and then fill in the rest of the run time with posturing, threats, ominous predictions and other forms of mood-tightening chit-chat.
Again, just to be clear, that is not a complaint. Especially not when you’ve got a script by the veteran Hill himself (along with Matt Harris) and the aforementioned cast. One of the great, classic genre nods of the screenplay is the fact that everyone’s ultimately on their own side. The bounty hunter (Waltz) sent off with the soldier (Warren Burke) whose comrade (Brandon Scott) absconded across the border with the wife (Brosnahan) of the rich man (Linklater) only for them all to find themselves in the same tiny town as a notorious outlaw (Dafoe); each of these characters has their own agenda and their own plan for getting out of this mess alive.
For nearly two hours, Hill allows these elements to gather heat from the friction of scraping up against one another. From poker games to standoffs, Dead for a Dollar lets the tension rise, occasionally blowing off a little steam with, say, a whip fight or something just as cool. But the shootout you know is coming keeps getting delayed until the very end. And, let me tell you, it’s worth it.