'Butcher's Crossing' Review: Nic Cage Meets Frontier Capitalism [TIFF]

Massachusetts is the best state to live in for reasons its residents have always known: we’re smarter, healthier, happier, and all around better off than everybody else. We have the decency and common sense to shove most of our pro-fascist wingnuts toward the boondocks. We also know what to do in inclement weather: hunker down with our stockpiled milk and bread until the snow stops falling. 

The last is a lesson the characters in Gabe Polsky’s “Butcher’s Crossing” would do well to learn. Adapting American author John Williams’ same-named 1960 novel into yet another stage for Nicolas Cage to grace in 2022, Polsky leans heavily on his star as his film’s support beam. This isn’t the Cagiest performance you’ll see from the surging actor – who is still riding the wave of career revitalization that began in 2018 with Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy” – but it is in keeping with his Vaudevillian style. Cage hums with a gravitational pull whenever he’s on screen, inviting Polsky’s characters to their graves. Our constant proximity to Cage’s character yanks the audience along for the ride, too, tucked under his abused duster jackets and buffalo skin cloaks. 

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But Cage is a sharing type. We hang on to every word when he talks and can’t help watching him as he moves within a space; that’s why people buy tickets to Nicolas Cage movies in the first place. Still, Polsky’s remaining cast members stand out just as surely as Cage, being Xander BerkeleyJeremy Bobb, and Fred Hechinger, the movie’s ostensible lead. Small likenesses echo between Hechinger and his character, Will Andrews, a wide-eyed young man fresh out of Harvard and eager to experience the U.S. of A. that lies beyond the bounds of the Old Colony State. Of course, Hechinger isn’t a Harvard man, nor is he as guileless as Andrews, but with minor roles to his name in (admittedly high profile) films like “Let Them All Talk” and “News of the World,” the “Fear Street” actor may hunger for this combination of role and film.

The title is sourced from the Kansas Frontier town Andrews journeys to in the opening credits, a humble place economically dependent on cattle ranchers and hunters. At first, Andrews tries persuading McDonald (Paul Raci), an old acquaintance of his father, to give him work other than making sure the company ledgers are in order; he wants to see what the West is really like. McDonald rebuffs him and then refers him to Miller (Cage), a crusty, weathered hunter with years of expertise in the delicate art of tracking buffalo herds and systematically blowing them away. They make an accord, buy supplies, and, as is customary for man-on-a-mission pictures, put together a team. This team is comprised of Miller’s wagon driver, Charley (Berkeley), and his skinner, Fred (Bobb); the former a devout, rambling Christian-cum-alcoholic, the latter a loudmouth asshole.

Whether they’ve read Williams or not, anyone can see what happens next. The expedition goes awry, food and water run low, everyone gets pissy with each other, and Miller’s mind unravels like a pulled thread unwinding a sweater. In the contest of man versus nature, man has an edge as long as he’s conservative; buffalo don’t stand much chance against concentrated rifle fire, and Miller’s aim is flawless. But his greed is too great, and the longer the contest drags on, the further nature creeps into the lead against man. 

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Polsky and Cage both treat Miller as an Ahab figure. There isn’t a white buffalo on the prairie responsible for biting off one of Miller’s limbs, but there are buffalo – rare ones seen by few – with thick hides more valuable than the hides stuck to lesser prey. Miller’s obsession isn’t with the hunt but the payout. “Butcher’s Crossing” emphasizes the hide market as the driving force that keeps Miller pushing Andrews, Fred, and Charley further from civilization, deeper into the wilderness, and closer to harm’s way.

Capitalism’s a voracious beast. It’s capricious, too. Cage gives Miller’s madness a weight the viewer can push their hands against. He’s a man doing a job, but what he wants from the job is more, more hides, more commodities to sell, more money in his pocket, and more glory to bolster his legend. Cage doesn’t play the madness. He plays the man. Hechinger plays Andrews as Miller’s wary foil, watching through the ever-expanding collage of dirt, grime, and suffering brushed across his face as Miller first throws caution, then his partner’s lives, to the wind. Andrews wanted to see what the West was like, and this, Polsky says, was what the West was like. 

“Butcher’s Crossing” comes dangerously close to making clumsy and over-determined statements about America through the arc of Miller’s downfall, as if shrewd viewers won’t “get” the film’s point about the capitalist’s reckless quest for that tempting more Miller can’t help chasing. “What a goddamn waste,” grouses Fred in one of Bobb’s finer moments, lamenting how buffalo hunters treat the bones like refuse. Indigenous tribes, he notes, make their weapons of war out of them; he unexpectedly segues into a gentler tone, adding children’s toys, combs, and jewelry to the list after clubs and knives. Fred isn’t a sensitive man, but he’s humane enough to recognize the cost of filling one’s coffers by slaughtering every living creature on God’s green earth.

The moment dangles the film over the precipice of “obvious” and poetic. But Williams’ narrative is so far removed from society that the film mercifully avoids making such blunders. Polsky seems more at home in forbidding forests and elysian plains. To him, snow-smothered pines and rolling golden fields share in common nature’s intrinsic beauty; they simply express that beauty at starkly different times of the year. “Butcher’s Crossing” is a gorgeous travelog. It’s also a warning about what happens when people fail to tread lightly in the natural world, both as a consequence of nature and themselves. [B]

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