Walter Hill’s lean, mean shoot-’em-up is a master class in B-movie craft.
“A man has a job to do, or a couple of men. They try to do it against tremendous odds. They do it.” That was how Budd Boetticher, whose “B” westerns of the 1950s became touchstones of the genre, summed up his movies. Walter Hill’s sinewy new western, “Dead for a Dollar,” is dedicated to Boetticher, who died in 2001, and honors his memory with appropriate thrift and elegance. It’s also a reminder that Hill — who at 80 has had a career that includes cult classics (“The Warriors,” “Streets of Fire”), smash hits (“48 Hours”) and everything in between — is a master in his own right, whose artistry has often been overlooked and undervalued.
The plot is maybe a little more complicated than what you’d see in “The Tall T,” “Ride Lonesome” or other Boetticher gems, but like them, “Dead for a Dollar” organizes its action around a set of practical challenges and ethical conundrums. There are more than a couple of men (and only one woman) involved in this caper, and the jobs they have to do put them at potentially fatal cross purposes with one another and with themselves. Everyone wants to stay alive and make a living, and also to follow whatever code they imagine constrains their behavior. It’s in the nature of things — certainly of westerns — that not everyone will succeed, and that philosophical arguments will be resolved with bullets.
Hill, who wrote as well as directed, is in no hurry to get to the shooting. He understands the value of the slow buildup, and also likes to listen to his characters talk — especially the salty old desert rats played by Willem Dafoe and Christoph Waltz. When we first meet them, Joe Cribbens (Dafoe), a grizzled all-purpose outlaw, is about to be sprung from the New Mexico Territorial Jail. He carries a grudge against Max Borlund (Waltz), the businesslike bounty hunter who sent him there.
The settling of their score will have to wait. Joe plans to retire south of the border for some R & R — he’s fond of poker, liquor and “señoritas” — while Max has a new assignment to deal with. An American soldier has run off to Mexico with the wife of a wealthy, politically ambitious landowner named Kidd (Hamish Linklater), who hires Max to hunt them down.
It’s inevitable that Max and Joe will cross paths — the Mexico of American westerns is a small place, in spite of its vastness — but the movie has a lot of thematic ground to cover on the way to that meeting. The western genre traffics heavily in myth, and also in politics, and there’s plenty of both here. An archetypal drama about loyalty, treachery and honor winds through thickets of racism and greed.
What Kidd describes as a kidnapping is in fact an interracial romance between Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), his wife, and Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), a Black Army sergeant. Elijah’s onetime friend Poe (Warren Burke), who is conscripted to help Max find the couple, has his own bitter experience as a Black man on the 1890s frontier. On both sides of the border, prejudice is sometimes trumped by the corrupting power of money, which makes a mockery of the idea of justice. Kidd’s counterpart in Mexico is Tiberio Vargas (Benjamin Bratt), a ruthless warlord whose whims can mean the difference between life and death.
I’ll leave you to find out who lives and who dies, not because any of it is all that surprising but because one of the pleasures of “Dead for a Dollar” lies in appreciating Hill’s skill as a storyteller. He uses the plot as a trellis on which his sometimes florid characters can bloom, even as their choices quicken and thicken the plot.
I don’t want to oversell this movie: It’s solidly and proudly a B picture, as the Boetticher dedication makes clear. But in an age of blockbuster bloat and streaming cynicism, a solid B movie — efficiently shot (by Lloyd Ahern II) and effectively acted (by everyone) is something of a miracle. Hill had a job to do. He did it. That’s worth something.