TIFF Review: “Butcher’s Crossing”

Toronto International Film Festival Gala Presentations World Premiere

Of all the varied genres Nicolas Cage has explored over the course of his long and colorful career, an old school western is one he hasn’t really touched. But it turns out that the part of buffalo hunter Miller is the exact right fit for Cage, one that requires uncharacteristic restraint before slowly bubbling over into raging greed.

Directed by Gabe Polsky from John Williams’ 1960 novel, “Butcher’s Crossing” is set in the mid-1870s and opens with the arrival of Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) in the frontier town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. Will recently dropped out of Harvard and ventured west from Boston in search of some excitement, or as he phrases it, “a stronger purpose and more meaning in my life.” That pursuit leads him to Miller, who possesses knowledge of an untouched valley in the Rockies that’s home to thousands of buffalo—so many buffalo that the high price their skins fetch—becoming ever more precious thanks to the animals’ ever-dwindling numbers—would net a small fortune for every member of the hunting party. With Will just enthusiastic and naïve enough to bankroll the expedition with all the money he has in his pockets, he, Miller, an alcoholic named Charley (Xander Berkeley) and a hide-skinner named Fred (Jeremy Bobb) alight for the plains, but nature has many trials in store for them.

Nicolas Cage and Fred Hechinger in “Butcher’s Crossing”; image courtesy of TIFF

“Butcher’s Crossing,” both the novel and this film adaptation, avoids mythologizing the West, opting for unforgiving portrayals of the wilderness that center around characters who are decidedly not heroic cowboys. The film is frequently mesmerizing, with sweeping shots of buffalo-dotted landscapes (their appearance was supervised by the Blackfeet Nation). And as the characters venture further into the wilderness, the narrative feels less structured, dominated by montages of scenes that blur the passage of time. Any excitement over the success of their quest is quickly quelled by illness, extreme weather, and Miller’s increasing determination to take as many buffalo down as they can, even after they’ve already collected more than enough.

But if “Butcher’s Crossing” is intended to be a critique of manifest destiny, and a cautionary tale promoting conservation told through an outsider’s eyes, the film continually drifts farther and farther away from Will’s perspective. The opening scenes of the film set in Butcher’s Crossing provide a solid outline of the sort of person he is. He has never done manual labor, as his smooth, white skin suggests. He’s fascinated by a local prostitute, but seems to see a future with her that goes beyond her job; he is too shy to actually sleep with her. And he is immediately beguiled by Miller. It’s easy to see why, even though Miller doesn’t exactly radiate trustfulness. His bald head and dark beard grant him more the air of a contemporary action hero than a western wanderer, and his hulking frame draped in furs is intimidating. His whole manner suggests that this is a person who knows what he’s doing. It’s a good role for Cage that allows him to tap into a more low-key register than he’s known for, but that he’s just as adept at. But the more Miller’s obsession dominates the proceedings, the more Will becomes a more passive observer, and that, paired with its very broad and shallow handle on its themes, hold “Butcher’s Crossing” back from having a stronger emotional punch. It’s a bleak film that will have some attraction for neo-western fans, but it’s a more curious than engrossing experience that ends on a well-intentioned but awkward note about how rabid hunting in the 1800s nearly decimated the entirety of America’s buffalo population. And its supporting characters are more interesting than its leads. The venerable Paul Raci briefly appears at the start and the finish of the film as a trader in town, and he provides some of the film’s most memorable lines of dialogue. When Will goes to see him after first arriving in town and states his mission, Raci’s trader says with all the disdain and weariness of someone who’s been around a while, “Young people always think there’s something to find out.” There’s no grand discovery to be made in the wilds of the West. As Will finds out, the only thing waiting to be revealed in the rolling plains and rocky hills is the true nature of man when all the bravado is stripped away, and there’s nothing left but fear and greed.

Runtime: 105 minutes.

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