The Movie Waffler New to VOD - BUTCHER’S CROSSING | The Movie Waffler


A buffalo hunter grows increasingly unstable on an expedition to a remote Colorado valley.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gabe Polsky

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Xander Berkeley, Rachel Keller, Jeremy Bobb, Paul Raci

Butcher's Crossing poster

Nicolas Cage recently made his western debut with the mediocre oater The Old Way. The flamboyant actor was miscast in a role crying out for a Kevin Costner or a Jeff Bridges. On paper, director Gabe Polsky's Butcher's Crossing should be a better fit for Cage's theatrics, as he plays a literal madman here. Oddly, Cage is so reined in that he's barely present, something I never thought I'd say about Hollywood's most exuberant star.

Based on the 1960 novel by John Edward Williams, the film opens in 1874 Kansas. Young minister's son Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) has dropped out of Harvard and headed west with romantic notions of seeing the real America. Looking to join a buffalo hunting party, Will finds himself in Buffalo's Crossing, a busy trading post for the fur trade. There he finds Cage's Miller, a gruff buffalo hunter who speaks of a legendary herd numbering the tens of thousands which he came across in a remote Colorado valley a decade earlier. Andrews is so enamoured of the hunter that he agrees to finance an expedition to the valley.

Butcher's Crossing review

Will and Miller are joined by Miller's elderly companion and cook Charlie (Xander Berkeley in the sort of role Walter Brennan might have played), and by Fred (Jeremy Bobb), a boorish buffalo skinner. The expedition sees the party trek across the desert, where they run low on water and encounter the usual victims of Indian raiding parties along with a desperate mother seeking water for her children. Miller's refusal to spare any of his party's water gives Andrews his first glimpse of the Darwinian coldness of the west.

When the men finally arrive at Miller's fabled valley, it turns out he wasn't exaggerating, with buffalo so numerous they paint the landscape black. Andrews is thrilled as he's taught how to kill and skin the beasts at the experienced hands of Miller and Fred. But as winter approaches and Miller insists on staying until every animal in the herd is dead, tensions begin to rise.

Butcher's Crossing review

Williams' novel is widely acclaimed as a gruelling, punishing read that treats its subject matter in unflinching detail. It's easy to see why this subject would make for a fine literary work in the mould of Jack London or Joseph Conrad, but its ideas aren't so easy to communicate in the restrictions of a two hour movie. For a start, Polsky and co-writer Liam Satre-Meloy struggle to convey time and space. The film relies on characters telling us how far they've travelled, and it comes as a surprise when such distances are verbally conveyed. The men seem to arrive at their destination in a couple of days rather than the months we're supposed to believe it actually took them. The men talk a lot about being thirsty but rarely look thirsty. Worried characters talk of the onset of winter but there's no visual sense of this passage of time save for the eventual snowfall. Even when the men find themselves trapped in the valley by snow they never quite seem as visibly affected as you might expect by such conditions. Simple visual signifiers like steamy breath, huddling around campfires and pulling buffalo hides close to their bodies are oddly absent, leaving us in no doubt that the actors are no more than a few feet away from a craft services table and a warm trailer. When Miller tells us there's no way out of the valley for at least six months, we don't buy it as the film never shows us any visual evidence to back up such a claim.

Just as unconvincing as the film's setting are its characters. All four are little more than archetypes and we never really get to know any of them despite spending two hours stuck in a valley with this bunch. Andrews is young and naive. Miller is nuts. Charlie is a drunk (who somehow managed to bring enough alcohol to keep him sozzled for a full year???). Fred is an asshole. That's as deep as it gets. The central relationship between Andrews and Miller is woefully underexplored. You might think the film would lean into the idea of Andrews viewing Miller as a father figure who represents an antidote to the stuffy world he left back east, but this dynamic is barely broached.

Butcher's Crossing review

The film closes with a string of facts about how the white man almost made the buffalo extinct and how the animal is now making a comeback thanks to the preservation efforts of Native Americans. The suggestion is that we've just watched a movie with a message about conservation, but the film itself never really gets that idea across. The plight of the buffalo is very much secondary to that of its human (or inhuman) characters, none of whom are interesting enough for us to care about.

Butcher's Crossing
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.