A story of disillusionment, bitterness and endurance set during the near extinction of the American bison, Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s crossing could have made a heartbreaking Werner Herzog movie a few decades ago. John Williams’ novel 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) plays the impatient young man, submitting to the wisdom of a seasoned hunter (Nicolas Cage) but slowly comes to suspect that the man and his entire business (and perhaps the entire history of white male raping the American West?) is inherently unhealthy.
While solidly done, it’s a Western without enough gusto or novelty to generate much interest, though its two leads should keep it from getting completely lost in the crowd.
Solid build, but lacks spark.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (gala presentations)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Rachel Keller, Xander Berkeley, Jeremy Bobb, Paul Raci
Director: Gabe Polsky
Screenwriters: Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre Meloy
1 hour 47 mins
Will Andrews de Hechinger shows up in Kansas in 1874, looking for a buffalo hide dealer (McDonald, played by The sound of metal‘s Paul Raci) whom his father once did a favor. The youngster hopes that McDonald will introduce him to a hunter, but the grumpy, impatient merchant has other ideas of how to reciprocate: Drop that idea, he says; this life is a disease that ruins men.
Persevering, Will bonds with Miller de Cage, whose gruffness eases when he realizes Will could put the money where his curiosity lies. Glowing under a shaved scalp and a massive buffalo coat, he eventually offers to let Will fund an expedition in search of the “biggest loot” of animals anyone here has seen. As the men discuss hiring a crew and a pretty prostitute acquaintance of Miller’s (Rachel Keller) approaches the boy in awe, you can practically hear fingers slipping into Will’s pocket to steal him from blindness.
But all Miller really threatens to steal is his innocence. Along with a camp cook (Xander Berkeley, almost unrecognizable as Charlie) and an irritable skinner (Jeremy Bobb’s Fred), they head into the mountains of Colorado – dangerous terrain their peers won’t enter.
It’s an arduous journey, but it’s not epic, and Polsky doesn’t invest the time in making us really feel what men endure. They almost die of thirst, they witness what the local tribes did to the white men who came before them, and then they find it: a huge herd whose skins are healthier than they are used to. to see, all gathered in a valley where they will be easily removed. Easy, that is, if your mind can sit quietly for hours, firing one gunshot after another at beasts that might kill you instead if the idea came to them. (Long, stomach-churning shots show fields littered with mangled buffaloes, lying to rot after Fred stripped their hides.)
It takes a surprisingly long time, and the dollar signs in their eyes don’t stop the men from growing impatient and angry at each other. If there were any clues of a heart of darkness For Miller, who guards his Kurtz-esque scalp with a giant Bowie knife, they manifest more fully now: Long, long after gathering more skins than they can carry, Miller keeps pulling, insisting on completely erasing this herd. By the time his men are ready to abandon him, it is too late. Winter falls, closing the pass of these mountains and forcing the hunting party to hunker down for months.
This sequence reflects the passage of time a little better, given the tension that develops between these four very different men. Already identified as the loose cannon, Fred begins to argue with Charlie about his devout faith, then learns that it’s unwise to blaspheme a Christian who makes your beans every night. Miller only grows more determined, though Cage never bursts into the kind of obsessive outbursts fans of his wild side will expect. And Will, having learned this trade and being sickened almost at the same time, is largely silent.
Although Will is “young and sweet” when he arrives, Hechinger hardens as the film goes through the winter, his opaque expression forcing us to imagine what lessons this experience teaches him. It could be the origin story of a cynical, dead cattle baron, or it could be a stroke of youthful recklessness for a man who will return east and practice law. One thing is fairly certain: whatever these hunters earn, it won’t be worth it.