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 movie a few decades ago. The novel by John Williams follows a privileged young man who leaves Harvard in search of raw experience in the West, and gets exactly what he pays for. Fred Hechinger (The white lotus) stars as the eager young man, who submits to the wisdom of a seasoned hunter (Nicolas Cage), but slowly begins to suspect that the man and his entire venture (and perhaps the whole story of white men raping the American West? ) faulty.
Though solidly made, it’s a western without enough fire or novelty to spark much interest, though the two leads have to make sure it doesn’t completely disappear into the crowd.
It comes down to
Solidly made, but without spark.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Form: 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 turns up in Kansas in 1874, in search of a buffalo hide dealer (McDonald, played by Sound of metal‘s Paul Raci) that his father once did a favor for. The youngster hopes McDonald will introduce him to a fighter, but the moody, impatient dealer has other ideas about how to return the favor: Give up this idea, he says; this life is a disease that ruins the people.
Will persists and contacts Cage’s Miller, whose surliness subsides when he realizes Will could be putting money where his curiosity is. Glowing beneath a shaved scalp and huge buffalo fur, he offers to let Will fund an expedition in search of the “biggest catch” of animals anyone here has seen. As the men discuss hiring a crew, and a beautiful prostitute acquainted with Miller (Rachel Keller) admiringly slides beside the boy, you can almost hear the fingers slip into Will’s pocket to rob him blind.
But the one thing Miller really threatens to rob is his innocence. Teamed up with a camp attendant cook (Xander Berkeley, almost unrecognizable as Charlie) and an excitable skinner (Jeremy Bobb’s Fred), they set out for the Colorado mountains—dangerous terrain their peers won’t tread.
It’s a tough journey, but this isn’t an epic, and Polsky doesn’t invest the time to really let us feel what the men are going through. 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 skins are healthier than they are used to seeing, all gathered in a valley where they’ It will be easy to choose from. Easy, that is, if your mind can last for hours pumping one gunshot after another at beasts that might kill you instead if the idea occurred to them. (Stomach twisting long shots show fields littered with mutilated buffalo, rotting after Fred removes their skin.)
It lasts astonishingly long, and the dollar signs in their eyes don’t stop the men from getting impatient and angry with each other. If there were hints of a Heart of darkness feeling for Miller, keeping his scalp Kurtz-esque with a giant Bowie blade, they now manifest themselves more fully: long, long after they’ve amassed more hides than they can carry, Miller keeps firing and insists on killing this herd completely. to clear. By the time his men are ready to abandon him, it’s too late. Winter comes, closing the pass out of these mountains, forcing the hunting party to crouch for months.
This sequence is a bit better at conveying the passage of time, given how much tension arises between these four very different men. Already identified as the loose cannon, Fred starts arguing with Charlie about his devout faith, then learns it’s unwise to slander a Christian who makes you beans every night. Miller only becomes more determined, though Cage never erupts into the kind of obsessed outbursts fans of his wild side will be waiting for. And Will, who learned this trade and got sick from it almost at the same time, is mostly silent.
Although Will was “young and soft” when he arrived, Hechinger hardens as the film moves through the winter, and his opaque expression forces us to imagine the lessons this experience teaches him. This could be the origin story of a cynical, pathetic cattle baron, or it could be a hint of youthful recklessness for a man who goes back east and practices the law. One thing is pretty certain: whatever these fighters get paid, it won’t be worth it.