A tale of disillusionment, bitterness and endurance set during the near-extinction of the American buffalo, Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s Crossing might have made for a harrowing Werner Herzog film a few decades back. John Williams’ novel follows a privileged young man who quits Harvard in search of raw experience in the West, and gets exactly what he’s paying for. Fred Hechinger (The White Lotus) stars as the eager young man, submitting himself to the wisdom of a seasoned hunter (Nicolas Cage) but slowly coming to suspect that the man and his entire enterprise (and maybe the whole story of white men raping the American West?) is fundamentally unsound.
Though solidly made, it’s a Western without enough fire or novelty to attract a great deal of interest, though its two leads should keep it from getting lost in the crowd completely.
The Bottom Line
Solidly made, but lacking spark.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Rachel Keller, Xander Berkeley, Jeremy Bobb, Paul Raci
Director: Gabe Polsky
Screenwriters: Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre Meloy
1 hour 47 minutes
Hechinger’s Will Andrews shows up in Kansas in 1874, seeking out a buffalo-hide trader (McDonald, played by Sound of Metal‘s Paul Raci) his father once did a favor for. The youngster hopes McDonald will introduce him to a hunter, but the grouchy, impatient dealer has other ideas about how to return the favor: Give up this idea, he says; this life is a sickness that ruins men.
Persisting, Will hooks up with Cage’s Miller, whose gruffness eases when he realizes Will might put money where his curiosity is. Glowering under a shaved scalp and a massive buffalo coat, he winds up offering to let Will fund an expedition in search of the “biggest haul” of animals anyone here has seen. As the men discuss hiring a crew, and a pretty prostitute acquaintance of Miller’s (Rachel Keller) sidles up to the boy admiringly, you can practically hear the fingers sliding into Will’s pocket to rob him blind.
But all Miller’s really threatening to rob is his innocence. Along with a camp-tending cook (Xander Berkeley, almost unrecognizable as Charlie) and an irritable skinner (Jeremy Bobb’s Fred), they set out toward the mountains of Colorado — dangerous terrain their peers won’t enter.
It’s an arduous trip, but this is no epic, and Polsky doesn’t invest the time to really make us feel what the men endure. They nearly die of thirst, they witness what local tribes have done to white men who came before them, and then they find it: a huge herd whose hides are healthier than they’re used to seeing, all gathered in a valley where they’ll be easy to pick off. Easy, that is, if your spirit can take sitting quietly for hours, pumping one rifle shot after another at beasts who could kill you instead if the idea occurred to them. (Stomach-turning long shots show fields littered with mutilated buffalo, lying to rot after Fred gets their skins off.)
It takes an astonishingly long time, and the dollar signs in their eyes don’t keep the men from growing impatient and angry with each other. If there were hints of a Heart of Darkness vibe to Miller, who keeps his scalp Kurtz-like with a giant Bowie knife, they manifest more fully now: Long, long after they’ve gathered more hides than they can transport, Miller keeps shooting, insisting on completely erasing this herd. By the time his men might be ready to abandon him, it’s too late. Winter falls, closing the pass out of these mountains and forcing the hunting party to hunker down for months.
This sequence is a bit better at conveying the passing time, given how much tension arises between these four quite different men. Already identified as the loose cannon, Fred starts picking fights with Charlie about his devout faith, then learns it’s unwise to blaspheme to a Christian who makes your beans every night. Miller only grows more singleminded, though Cage never erupts in the kind of obsessed outbursts fans of his wild side will be waiting for. And Will, having learned this trade and been sickened by it at nearly the same time, goes largely silent.
Though Will was “young and soft” when he arrived, Hechinger hardens as the film moves through winter, his opaque expression forcing us to imagine what lessons this experience is teaching him. This could be the origin story of a cynical, soul-dead cattle baron, or it could be a blip of youthful recklessness for a man who’ll go back east and practice law. One thing’s fairly certain: Whatever these hunters get paid, it won’t be worth it.