I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here
For me, a new Walter Hill movie is an event even if he hasn’t made a great feature film since the 90s. And he’s one of the few directors of the modern age who understands the Western, having worked made a couple very good entries in the genre (The Long Riders, Broken Trail) and a couple more fascinating misfires. So the prospect of a new Western from the legendary filmmaker was exciting and I’m happy to report that the results are mostly positive.
The strength of Dead for a Dollar is in its script. Hill, who was a writer of films before he directed them, has clearly not lost his touch. This is his strongest script in decades and possibly the best writing material for a Western since Appaloosa. Like that movie, it harks back to the traditional films of the 40s and 50s while taking the narrative in new directions. Hill plays with pieces of The Professionals and Budd Boetticher films (the movie is touchingly dedicated to that great director) while weaving a complex plot. The movie really gets going in its final act when all the strands start to come together for an exciting finish. And in an age when no one knows how to write good dialog anymore, Hill’s characters refreshingly speak with intelligence and nuance.
The big “however” is the execution of the film. With all due respect to the director, I question whether he may be a point in his career when he should relinquish the wheel and let a younger filmmaker steer the ship, staying alongside as a producer of his solid scripts. His moves feel tired compared to his work throughout the 70s, 80s, and even early 90s with films like Trespass. He doesn’t pack the punch he once did, especially in a visual way which is Dead for a Dollar‘s most notable weakness. The movie often times looks cheap, no better than some micro-budget Westerns I’ve seen at festivals. It’s color scheme is ultimately a mistake, a washed out brown that only serves a couple landscape shots well and otherwise muddies the hell out of the movie. Overall, Hill’s current visual touch isn’t dynamic and neither is his blocking of the scenes. One of the most novel scenes in the film is a duel with whips instead of guns, but I left this sequence feeling deeply unsatisfied, knowing it could have been much more memorable in another’s hands. All this said, I do love most of the final gun battle where Hill mixes in a good amount of shots missed with the ones that hit. The choreography is impressive and stands out among flashier contemporary films.
I also wonder about his direction of actors. Willem Dafoe and Christoph Waltz are good but how could they not be? Waltz in particular is a fun variation on the usual Western protagonist. Dafoe’s character has more complexity than the villains we’re used to seeing these days (again, Hill is playing in Boetticher territory) but I was disappointment at the direction his outlaw is taken at the end. It could have (and I believe should have) been a more unconventional conclusion. But back to the acting, there are performances that don’t feel like they were pushed enough by the man in charge. Rachel Brosnahan is stiff, perhaps intentionally but she never reaches a vulnerable place where I could truly care about her dilemma. The two black performers, Brandon Scott and Warren Burke, give it their best but fall short. Having watched a director be indifferent to his performers on set in the past, I wonder if Hill didn’t push his people enough. He strikes me as the kind who would let a performance be and that works with Dafoe/Waltz but not with these others who needed guidance.
All in all, Dead for a Dollar is one of the better Westerns made in the last ten years. It stands out among all the others because Hill actually understands the genre. Regardless of my reservations, I highly recommend this film.
Watched on Amazon