Combustible Celluloid Review - Butcher's Crossing (2023), Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, based on a novel by John Williams, Gabe Polsky, Nicolas Cage, Jeremy Bobb, Xander Berkeley, Fred Hechinger, Paul Raci, Rachel Keller
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With: Nicolas Cage, Jeremy Bobb, Xander Berkeley, Fred Hechinger, Paul Raci, Rachel Keller
Written by: Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, based on a novel by John Williams
Directed by: Gabe Polsky
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence/bloody images and brief sexual content
Running Time: 108
Date: 10/20/2023

Butcher's Crossing (2023)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buffalo Chill

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This grim, pessimistic Western feels at times a little inert and a little uneven; it might have had more thrust, more madness, but it still captivates with its powerful visuals and fine performances.

It's 1874, and college student Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) walks away from Harvard to learn a little about what life is like. He heads to Kansas, where he finds an old family acquaintance, buffalo hide merchant McDonald (Paul Raci). McDonald sends Will away, but before long Will meets hunter Miller (Nicolas Cage). Miller knows a place in the Colorado mountains where thousands of buffalo roam, but he needs a stake. Thus Will finds himself financing a trip, and coming along for the ride.

They are accompanied by skinner Fred (Jeremy Bobb) and old man Charlie (Xander Berkeley), who drives the coach. The team finds Miller's secret spot, but Miller becomes obsessed with shooting as many buffalo as possible, keeping the men there longer than expected. When a winter storm hits, their only passway out is blocked. Now in addition to frayed nerves, tensions, and tempers, the men must survive for months in the freezing cold before cashing in their bounty.

Based on a 1960 novel by John Williams (a contemporary of Cormac McCarthy's), Butcher's Crossing has a Moby Dick-like setup, with an Ishmael and an obsessed Captain Ahab, but director Gabe Polsky — mainly a maker of documentaries — can't seem to give it the epic heft it could have used.

The tenderfoot Will largely becomes passive observer in his own story, while Miller's motivations and behaviors are somewhat cloudy. Cage can't quite get a handle on the character, and doesn't seem to know when to go "full Cage" or rein it in. (Although he does specifically recall Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, either scraping his bald dome with a razor or thoughtfully running a bare hand over it.)

But through it all we have the awesome images of the buffalo (the movie was shot in Montana, where the Blackfeet Nation works to preserve their numbers), and the sickening spectacle of their slaughter. We have the snowbound landscape, with all its beauties and miseries. And we have the great character actor Jeremy Bobb as the wild card Fred, forever keeping the others on their toes. In other words, there's a rawness to Butcher's Crossing that keeps it interesting, even if it misses its chance at greatness.

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