This is an advanced review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Butcher’s Crossing made its world premiere. It does not yet have a release date.
Butcher’s Crossing is a neo-Western drama with a descent into psychological madness. This is a movie about interrogating the myths of the American West, of heroism and masculinity, and man’s control over nature. Nicolas Cage continues his streak of subtle but captivating roles as a veteran buffalo hunter with an obsession, and the film features some gorgeous vistas. Sadly, its traditional script offers few surprises and little insight. This is a bleak and ultimately not very memorable movie that nevertheless tells an important story.
It’s set in 1874, a time of the American Frontier, where mass migration and exploration dominated the minds of impressionable young men hoping to prove themselves in the Wild West. We’ve seen plenty of stories about this time period, including a fair share of survival thrillers about man’s attempts to tame nature, but few movies have shined a light on the horrible manners by which men tried to tame nature. The best parts of Butcher’s Crossing illuminate how commercial- and government-sanctioned (and encouraged) hunting of the American bison was driving bloodthirsty men to massacre the species — and directly making the Native American population starve and be driven away from their homes and into Indian Reservations.
The film follows Will (Fred Hechinger), a young Harvard student who drops out of school and decides a real man is not found buried in books and studies, but out in the wilderness surviving against the elements and doing the very manly act of hunting innocent, docile, and defenseless animals with a big-ass rifle while standing quietly at a distance. To accomplish this ordeal, he heads to Kansas, once a place where buffalo were so abundant they resembled a black sea of fur, but now, there are hardly any animals to massacre for their hide and leave their corpses to rot.
So what’s a young, idealistic boy to do but hire the baddest-looking hunter around? That’s a man who seems like he could be the ancestor of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, a Captain Ahab of the land who looks as if Nicolas Cage was preparing to play Kratos but with a cowboy hat, to take you on a journey to track down a mythical herd the hunter once saw years ago but no one believes is real – a herd of premium hides that will fetch a very pretty penny. Of course, completing this journey is easier said than done, and between the elements, the treacherous roads, and Cage’s Miller getting obsessed with eliminating every last buffalo on the planet, the men’s resolve will be tested, their manhood challenged as the young lad starts to ponder whether human nature and the myth of the West were all he hoped they would be.
Cage’s performance is another nuanced one, as Miller is obsessive and ruthless, hiding years of work, sacrifice, and pain in a few smoldering looks. Hechinger, meanwhile, captures Will’s slow descent into madness and despair, seeing all his ideals and his dreams of heroism shattered with each new defenseless buffalo that Miller mows down with gusto. It’s true: this is one bleak movie, and those with a low tolerance for images of animal death may want to steer clear of the hundreds of shots of buffalo dropping dead.
Butcher’s Crossing find a great balance between showing us grandiose and awe-inspiring vistas that make you want to root for these adventurers as they traverse the Colorado Territory, and juxtapose it with image after image of the blood-soaked hunters mowing down buffalo, skinning them, then throwing away their organs. And yet, despite a poignant commentary about the total annihilation of the American bison and its impact on the Native American peoples (mostly relegated to an end credits text), Butcher’s Crossing struggles to find anything fresh to say about the themes it presents. There are moments of tension to be had, certainly, but they are rather predictable, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything especially illuminating in the story. This is not the fault of the actors, who visibly try to dig deeper, but the movie’s runtime (at one hour and 45 minutes) doesn’t give them much room to play with the script, which remains at surface level in terms of themes and characterization.
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Butcher’s Crossing ends up as a conventional, if rather gnarly, neo-Western about the horrors behind the myth of the American West. It may not break the mold, but hey, if you ever wanted to see Nicolas Cage give his best Brando while sporting a cowboy hat, there is still some enjoyment to be had here.