We’ve seen Nicolas Cage descend into madness many times before, but never in such a bleak, Old West setting as he does in Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s Crossing. An adaptation of John Edward Williams’ grim 1960 novel that explores the madness and myth of the American West, the film offers Cage a rarity for someone at this stage of his career; a new challenge in a new genre. As Miller, the crusty, Ahab-esque buffalo hunter at the center of this frontier tale, Cage is compelling enough to overlook the film’s other shortcomings.
Cage towers onto the screen; head shaved bald, riding horseback and covered in buffalo pelts. He saunters into the titular Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing in 1874, a tiny speck where a man can make a fortune in the fur trade if he’s gutsy (and lucky) enough to survive the hunts. Miller is one of those who can; although he’s got bigger aspirations. The buffalo herds have begun to thin out, but Miller has long known of a secret spot where they roam thick and free. The only problem is he can’t get anyone to finance such a journey, much less tag along for spoils that may not come.
Enter Fred Hechinger(The White Lotus) as Will, who has left behind the civilized life and Harvard education to see the real world. He’s our naive guide into this unpredictable, cutthroat world, and Miller spots it right away. Enticing the boy with lofty stories about this mythical buffalo hiding spot, Miller convinces him to pony up the money and join the hunt. Will isn’t paying attention to everyone warning him against Miller’s crazed notions. Nor does he wonder why the only people Miller can recruit for this trek are his longtime pal Charley (Xander Berkeley), an ancient, one-armed Bible-thumper and drunkard; and Fred (Jeremy Bobb), a sketchy skinner with a foul mouth and worse attitude. Fred does not have high hopes that any of this will pay off.
Polsky, a documentary filmmaker making his narrative directing debut, impressively captures the awe-insiring expanse of the Old West; it’s danger and beauty lit by an array of natural colors. You can easily understand why someone like Will would be enthralled with exploring such a place, but also how it could mold someone like Miller into the person he is revealed to be. The brutal journey does eventually lead to the motherlode that Miller spoke of. Buffalo herds stretched out for what appears to be hundreds of miles, you can practically see the hunters’ mouths watering at the lucrative rewards.
Those with a weak stomach for cruelty towards animals will want to avoid what happens next. As Miller begins taking down the buffalo with one buckshot after the next, the bodies and the pelts stack up quick. But no matter how many he kills, Miller just won’t stop. Surrounded by literal mountains of animal corpses for weeks past the hunt’s end date, the men understandably grow bitter, angry, and violent.
It’s a fun role for Cage, who gets to chomp scenery (and the occasional pipe) while spouting off zen wisdom about the buffalo, while also gunning them down with clinical precision. Miller isn’t all that tough to figure out. I think we all sense early on that he’s a bit crazy, and casting Cage sorta gives it away right from the jump. He’s still a lot more interesting than Will, who is so thinly-drawn that he comes across like a dope rather than a smart kid out of his depth.
One wishes Polsky had more resources to play around with, because what’s lacking in Butcher’s Crossing is a sense of how arduous this quest really is. It turns out to be rather easy, short of a brief stint thirsting for water and the discovery of an outpost murderously overrun by tribal warriors. If you’re going to send Miller on this Ahab-like pursuit, we really need to feel what he’s going through to achieve it, and what it means to him.
Butcher’s Crossing could use more fire in its belly, but Polsky does a solid job of navigating the film’s many different narrative turns. What begins as a sort of Old West take on the “one last job” heist flick, evolves into a tense psychological thriller that shows the harsh reality of the pioneer lifestyle. Cage, who is surprisingly restrained for such a colorful role, should bring a lot of attention to the film that it otherwise wouldn’t have received. This is definitely a good thing because Polsky’s intentions are honorable, shooting the film on Blackfeet Nation tribal land. The Blackfeet have done more than anyone to save the American Buffalo from near-extinction due to hunters just like Miller. There’s no glorifying of the hunt in Polsky’s film at all. Rather, it’s sad to watch these men destroying such natural beauty for the sake of cold profits. When Fred, the seediest and most surly of the bunch, laments the wanton buffalo massacre, it’s the last gasp of a dying breed that knows it will leaving nothing but a legacy of death.
Butcher’s Crossing opens in select theaters on October 20th.