If you’re an Ivy League drop-out looking for a guide to take you on a buffalo hunt deep in the Colorado wilderness during the late-1800s there is no better choice than a badass, bald, and bearded Nicolas Cage in pure menacing form. This is the choice young Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) makes as he, Miller (Cage), and a few others embark on a journey that will test their sanity in Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s Crossing based on the novel by John Williams that also explores the power and desperation of greed. Polsky in his adaptation is able to craft a gripping film that falls short of being great, but still manages waves of effective emotional intensity while also cinematically capturing the harsh conditions these men endured. Conditions that would ultimately test their mental stability over time as Miller goes on a buffalo killing rampage that keeps the men out far longer than originally planned.
Now right out of the gate Cage is fantastic in the lead as a man who puts money above all else as he goes on a marathon of killing that affects each of his group members in different ways. Cage leans into insanity just enough without overdoing it and with his bald head and dead behind the eyes expressions he truly gives this film the imposing wild card the plot needs. He’s a hardened man when the film begins but the graduation to becoming unhinged is compelling and at times delightfully unsettling to see evolve through Cage’s skilled delivery (it really feels like he’s acting here)!
The direction and cinematography from Polsky and David Gallego are also very strong in this film. The beauty and the dangers of the landscape are captured, you really feel like these guys are days out in the middle of nowhere and the ominous atmosphere complements Cage’s mental descent perfectly to keep you on edge while watching. So, Butcher’s Crossing, if nothing else is a visually crisp film that you as the viewer can immerse yourself into.
However, on the narrative side the backdrop of these characters is a bit thin and with the minimal beats of this plot there was time available to develop these characters a bit. I wouldn’t go as far as to call these cardboard characters. I wouldn’t call Butcher’s Crossing a case of style-over-substance either. There are motivational layers to these guys, but it’s also stuff we’ve seen before. I did love the evolutions of Fred (Jeremy Bobb). He was a character I really disliked early on, and he was the one I actually expected to be the unpredictable character. And I guess you could say he was because as Cage’s Miller got crazier the more Fred began to make sense. Overall, though, this recycled feel to the characters brings the pace down during the quiet moments. Outside of Cage’s relentlessness on the back half of course.
The problem here is that outside of the focal premise of ‘man ravaging the land’ and Nicolas Cage in the lead making everyone feel uneasy, Butcher’s Crossing is built on borrowed elements. The runtime could have been trimmed by 10-15 minutes and this would have enabled the pace to stay intact, lighting the impact of the lulls, thus keeping the energy up. However, as it is Butcher’s Crossing is a compelling time-period story and the performances across the board are solid. It’s a visually stunning film at times, the scoring from Leo Birenberg heightens the mood nicely as well. It just takes a bit longer than needed to tell its story and gets a bit too close to wearing out its welcome.
CAST: Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Xander Berkeley, Rachel Keller, Jeremy Bobb, Paul Raci DIRECTOR: Gabe Polsky WRITER(S): Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, John Williams DISTRIBUTOR: Saban Films RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes RATING: R (For language, some violence, bloody imagery and brief sexual content) YEAR: 2022/2023 LANGUAGE: English GENRE: Drama/Western
Anthony J. Digioia II © 2023 SilverScreen Analysis