Film Review: Butcher's Crossing | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 9th, 2023  

Butcher’s Crossing

Studio: Saban Films
Director: Gabe Polsky

Oct 20, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Nicolas Cage is not only riveting but also surprisingly restrained in the unsettling new western Butcher’s Crossing. Based on the 1960 novel of the same name by National Book Award-winning author John Edward Williams, Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a buffalo hunt poised to be prosperous, until it is squandered by hunters overcome with aggression and greed.

A bearded, bald, and gruff-voiced Cage plays Miller, the most formidable hunter and seller of prized buffalo hides in a Kansas frontier town in the 1870s. Yes, Cage is now notorious for being hammy, or perhaps even unhinged, in bargain-bin schlock after peaking as an Oscar-winning leading man in the ‘90s. But here, his anger smolders, his outbursts remain grounded, and his character’s motivations are nothing short of compelling.

This is still Cage we’re talking about, so the performance abounds with eccentricities. His Miller has the unnerving habit of assembling bullets by hand, pouring gunpowder into casings before hammering the lethal lead slugs into the front, his every strike pinging ominously to the point of making viewers jumpy about a piece of the ammunition exploding. More outrageous still: Cage strokes his skull intermittently with a hunting knife throughout the film to ensure it remains bone bare, underscoring his character’s barely veiled instability and ruthlessness.

Screenwriters Gabe Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy (the former also directed the film) deftly complicate what could have been a conventional villainous narrative. They do so with Jeremy Bobb’s Fred Schneider, a morally barren member of Miller’s hunting party who picks fights with the other members, boasts about whoring and hoarding money, and harbors a murderous volatility. While he makes Miller look tame in comparison, Schneider’s vileness is a startlingly stark contrast to the greenest member of their party, Will Andrews. Played with convincing wide-eyed naivety by Fred Hechinger, Andrews endures a gauntlet of punishing weather, all the more brutal violence, and a glimpse into Miller’s abyss-esque compulsion to slaughter bison.

Though audiences may hanker for Miller to be the protagonist, thanks to Cage’s gripping performance and the lingering ambiguity about his motives’ origins, Butcher’s Crossing instead makes Andrews an audience surrogate to enter this film’s savage world. The movie begins with Andrews as a horse and wagon passenger visiting the eponymous Kansas town famed for buffalo slaying and bartering of the animals’ prized hides. Having foolishly dropped out of Harvard, Andrews hopes to live out adventures he has only read about. Upon meeting Miller, he asks to join his next hunt and job shadow the heralded hunter, while also coughing up every penny of his considerable savings to fund the endeavor.

Miller will need every iota of those resources and more. That’s because he isn’t planning any regular hunt, but instead a Captain Ahab-like crusade. Except his prey isn’t just one creature, but seemingly the entire buffalo species. He also seems driven by bigotry toward indigenous hunting rivals whom he occasionally dismisses as savages throughout the film.

That isn’t his sales pitch to an unexacting Andrews, of course. Miller instead promises Andrews, Schneider, and an old friend Charlie Hoge (played both wiley and frail by Xander Berkeley) that a buffalo herd bigger than their wildest dreams is grazing in a valley deep within the yet-to-be-settled Midwest. The hides they’ll be able to sell from such a hunt should make them all wealthy.

Plenty stands in their way. The mountainous terrain— shot in gorgeous omnipotent flyovers by Polsky’s drones — is perilous to travel. Water is scarce. And looming winter threatens to bury them in ice and snow. They nevertheless find the herd, though only after Andrews nearly succumbs to dehydration in a surreal montage that is absorbingly shot by Polsky. These abundant buffalo stampede through a canyon below the hunting party, coursing like a brown furry river that swept up much of this society in greed and ecologically calamitous practices.

Miller expertly snipes several of the animals from an easel that he rests his lever action rifle upon, then skins whatever he slays, teaching an all-too-eager Andrews all the while. The buffalo are filmed in engrossing sequences that are worth the price of a movie ticket alone (if audiences and theaters of course showed any interest in such dark, non-IP dramas anymore). Polsky shoots close-ups of buffalo’s eyes as they stare Miller and his cruelly unfair rifle down. Wider-shot scenes, where the beasts absorb gun blasts and begin stampeding more loudly than a rupturing fault line, are convincing enough to make you forget you’re watching a fictional film. All that will also linger in your memory, as you puzzle over how Polsky and his team pulled it off.

The character arcs aren’t nearly as impressive. Miller’s unquenchable buffalo killing, and the threat of hypothermia, drive Andrews mad and elevate his character past an endearing but somewhat one-note sap. But just barely. And Schneider’s showdown with Hoge is as baldly predictable as Miller’s hairline. Their characters have even less dimension than Andrews’, though they are effectively portrayed by Bobb and Berkeley. Above all, Miller is fascinating enough to warrant a movie of his own where his antihero arc is left unfettered by these lesser arcs. The upside: his villainous role here, blanks in his background and all, make him an intriguing allusion to colonialism and humanity’s ravenous penchant for animal cruelty and environmental destruction, even though Cage’s performance leaves us hankering for more screen time.

Equally outstanding: sound effects editor Nuno Bento. He evocatively captures the ringing bullets being hammered together by Miller, the rumbling breathing of the buffalo, and the tearing noise of the hunters’ knives skinning hides. Perhaps best of all is the way he makes Miller shaving his own skull with that knife sound as if it’s occurring in the room with you.

However, Butcher’s Crossing is all the more singular thanks to consultation from the Blackfeet Tribe Buffalo Program. They are credited with training the bison in a post-credits sequence that also details the harm that buffalo hunts have wrought, and how the population rebounded thanks to indigenous conservation efforts.

These strengths make Butcher’s Crossing rank among other offbeat, boundary-pushing modern westerners like The Proposition and Bone Tomahawk. Though it falls short of those high water marks because of its occasionally lukewarm plot and character development, Polsky’s ambition in other regards will keep Butcher’s Crossing in debates about new westerns — perhaps as a dark horse— for years to come.

Author rating: 7/10

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