“Because Mr. Hill is still, in most respects, Mr. Hill, much of the film is more watchable than it has any right to be,” I concluded. And because “Dead for a Dollar” is a Western, I thought that it had a good chance of avoiding the pitfalls of “The Assignment.”
Sure enough, it does, even if it deliberately places itself in potentially inflammatory territory. “Dead” begins with widescreen shots of a grand and punishing American Southwest landscape; in the distance we see a rider and a horse followed by another horse, whose rider holds a parasol as a shield against the sun. These two are Elijah Jones, a hardened deserter, and Rachel Kidd, who, depending on who is telling the story, is either his willing companion or his abductee.
Christoph Waltz plays Max Borlund, a bounty hunter who will soon be hired to track down this pair. Before then, we hear about a grudge between him and Joe Cribbens, a gambler and bank robber who spent five years in prison because of Max. Max visits Joe the day before he is to be released from a dusty cell and informs him that whatever Joe thinks Max owes him, he won’t get it and he better stay away. We know their paths will cross again. This image, written by Hill and Matt Harrisgoing to be firmly In The Tradition.
This is true even if it adds new points of interest to the scenario. As in Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) is Black, and Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) is white. Jones’ commanding officer is rightfully outraged, as is Rachel’s wealthy husband (Hamish Linklater). Their story is that Jones kidnapped Rachel and demands $10,000 for her return. That’s half true. The whole truth is that Rachel, an abused wife, and Jones have run away together and are looking for money to complete their escape, perhaps to Cuba. At first, Max only knows that he will get $2,000 to complete their return. To help with this, the army lends Max a sharpshooter named Poe (Warren Burke), a friend of Jones’ who is also black.