I reckon that I’ll always have a soft spot for westerns.
While they have all but disappeared in recent years, there’s no question that the western is still with us, even if we don’t know it.. Having morphed into more modern forms such as science fiction or even superhero films, the tropes of the western remain. Bounty hunters trying to make a buck, a mysterious hero from the outskirts and an endless parade of outlaws have all embedded themselves in other genres. Even so, there’s something special about a shoot-out at the OK Corral amidst the dry, dusty landscapes of the Old West.
And Dead for a Dollar wants very much to be considered a modern classic.
Directed by Walter Hill, Dead for a Dollar tells the story of bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) as he’s approached by wealthy businessman, Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater). Kidd is furious that his wife has been abducted by a former soldier and wants Borlund to bring her home. After accepting the job, Borlund soon discovers that what he has been told may not be true and he must choose whether or not he’ll fulfill his contractual obligations.
Shot using sepia colours, Dollar wants you to feel as though you are set adrift in the wilderness and it unapologetically leans into the tropes of a genre that feel all but forgotten. Stars Willam Dafoe and Waltz are clearly having a lot of fun putting on their cowboy boots and their characters have a story to tell. Unfortunately, the script is muddled and plods along as slowly as a gunslinger on a cattle drive, preventing it from becoming truly memorable.
And ma’am, this here’s a cryin’ shame. Because Dollar is different than a lot of things going for it.
Whereas most traditional westerns focus primarily on the authority and power of the white man with the gun, Dollar chooses instead to empower everyone. Although Borlund may be the film’s protagonist, he’s far from alone and has no claims to any authority. As such, he’s more progressive in his views than the culture. Issues of race and gender mean little to him as he treats everyone with the same respect.
To him, the most important thing is the job that he’s been paid to do.
In this way, Borlund remains a man of integrity, even if he carries does his dealings with his finger on the trigger. To him, doing what’s right is as important as honouring your contract and he is willing to walk the line between the two worlds. He believes that everyone has the right to live and, although he doesn’t pick up a badge to defend that view, he conducts his business in a way that honours it.
In this way, too, the film also elevates the concept of freedom within the Old West. Although the world exists with a ‘shoot first’ mentality, freedom isn’t about conquest. Instead, it’s about individualism. Women have the right to choose for themselves how they shall live and African Americans are considered free, even if the old guard refuses to acknowledge it.
In Dollar, to be free has everything to do with empowerment, as opposed to power.
So even though Dollar has all the fixins’ for something special, it’s likely that it’ll blow away in our memories like a tumbleweed.
Dead for a Dollar is available in theatres and on VOD on Friday, September 30th, 2022.