Nicolas Cage’s direct-to-video days may be over — we’ve come a long way from the “Kill Chain,” “Primal,” “Grand Isle” triple-header of 2019 — but the guy is simply too eager and too curious to just sit by the phone and wait for someone to call him with a script as strong and/or well-tailored to him as “Mandy,” “Pig,” or “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.”
While Cage’s latest creative renaissance is hopefully still just getting started, his current upswing was always going to be pockmarked by its fair share of forgettably solid genre films. We’re talking respectable programmers with compromised scripts, cool supporting casts, and just enough credibility to stride onto Redbox with their heads held high. The kind of movie whose director tried to get it made for more than a decade before deciding that driving a roadworthy Nicolas Cage vehicle would be preferable to leaving a Rolls-Royce to rust in the garage.
In other words, the low-rent but well-intentioned “Butcher’s Crossing” doesn’t feel like a hiccup in Cage’s recent hot streak so much as it does a watchable part of the plan, and possibly even a preview of things to come.
Adapted from John Edward Williams’ rough and rangy 1960 novel of the same name — and broadly reflecting the book’s anti-Western efforts to restore a measure of harsh realism to a genre overrun by myths and cowboys — this undercooked tale of a buffalo hunt gone wrong doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to capture the Emersonian flavor of its source material, or the vision to reflect that “Red Army” director Gabe Polsky has been trying to bring it to the screen for more than decade. What it does have is a bald and beefy Nicolas Cage spouting manic ideas about the best way to shoot a bison and sporting a thick beard that ironically makes him resemble a VOD-era John Travolta, no facial surgery required.
The story begins in 1874, when a fresh-faced Harvard boy named Will Andrews (“The White Lotus” breakout Fred Hechinger) arrives in Kansas in search of a different kind of education. “I hope to find a stronger purpose and more meaning in my life,” the minister’s son intones over the movie’s threadbare voiceover track, “and to expand my understanding of the world beyond Boston.”
Sure enough, there isn’t a single Dunkin’ Donuts to be found in the frontier town where he alights — only a handful of desperate buffalo hunters, a beautiful sex worker he’s too bashful to sleep with, and a hard-assed hide-trader (“The Sound of Metal” favorite Paul Raci) who’s got no time for a lily-white New England boy with hands as soft as a baby’s cheek. “Young folk always think there’s something to find out,” he spits, as if every day brings with it some new kid who sees half the country as his own personal Westworld.
This being a threadbare adventure without much time to spare, Will is hardly in town five minutes before he finds himself at a bar table across from an ambitious hunter who could use some dumb kid with $500 in his pocket to bankroll his big score. The herds have been scattered by over-hunting and it’s getting harder to make a killing in every sense of the word, but that’s no problem for the mad-eyed Miller (Cage).
The hunter is raring to visit a secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where the buffalo run as wide and deep as the sea, and he’s more than happy to bring Will and his money along for the trip. Also joining their party: A ruthless hide-skinner named Fred (“The Knick” actor Jeremy Bobb), and a one-armed religious alcoholic named Charley (an almost unrecognizable Xander Berkeley). “Why fear God?,” Will asks the latter. “You’ll see,” comes the reply.
And so they set out into a forbidding wilderness, Hechinger disappearing further into the background with every step as Will practically becomes a passive observer — as if the buffalo hunt were some elaborate ride that he paid to watch from the front row. Of course, that’s what he did to some degree, but Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy’s script ices the character out to the point that it can be easy to forget he’s even there.
If there’s something for Will to “find out” in the open West, the discovery lies entirely within himself, and yet the abject lack of self this film provides him makes it difficult for any of the story to sink deeper than its literal circumstance; flat digital cinematography and some glaringly artificial green screen work further dampen any invitation towards poetry. At least the buffalo look real, thanks in large part to Polsky’s collaboration with the animals’ protectors in the Blackfeet Nation.
“Butcher’s Crossing” wouldn’t have been able to exist without that support, as Miller does eventually lead his team to the promised land… where his untamed desire to slaughter as much of the herd as he can has a dampening effect on Will’s enthusiasm for the wild. It isn’t long before Miller goes full Colonel Kurtz out there, his bloodlust for buffalo growing so intense that his team misses their window to leave the mountains, and is forced to hunker down until the spring. Needless to say, Will soon discovers a few good reasons to fear God, or at least a few good reasons to fear that God doesn’t exist.
There’s some fun to be had in the Brando-like flickers of Cage’s performance, but Polsky’s film is too practical and logic-driven to indulge them. Aside from some conspiratorial accusations that result from one rather glorious bout of diarrhea, “Butcher’s Crossing” takes a rather grounded approach to the grim price that its hunters pay for their hubris.
Even as Miller and his crew begin to see through the empty promise of money as they reckon with the elements, Polsky’s telling doesn’t find the time or texture required for this story to become a richer portrait of man’s place in nature; you can feel his overqualified cast raging against the edges of the frame in search of something more to play, which proves frustrating even when it’s fun to watch. It’s almost refreshing to see a Nicolas Cage movie where the supporting cast is skilled enough to deserve better.
The sepia-toned photographs that we see over the opening and closing credits — gruesome images of buffalo skulls piled into pyramids some 30 feet high — provide a more lucidly damning portrait of the damage that white men did to the American West than any of the actual scenes between them. Ditto the end text, which celebrates the efforts of indigenous tribes to save the bison population despite not making any time for what the film’s strangely Trumpian language refers to as “one of the greatest conservation stories of all time.” Maybe it was, but this surely is not. It’s just another chapter in the ever-expanding book of Nicolas Cage, forgettable on the whole even if it leaves you as curious as ever to find out what happens next.
“Butcher’s Crossing” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Saban Films will release it in the United States.