Butcher’s Crossing finds success through stunning vistas and full-bodied characters

Butcher’s Crossing finds success through stunning vistas and full-bodied characters

Those degenerate film nerds amongst us probably first heard of Butcher’s Crossing through an interview with Nicolas Cage in which he spoke of an on-set horse, named Rain Man, that seemed to have it out for the Academy Award winning actor who could himself be called a work horse.

Rain Man kept trying to knock me off and would try to run my head into roofs, and then I’d get off and try to be nice to him, and he would head-butt me. It was not fun. I’ve always had good experiences with animals. I always had great experiences with horses, but Rain Man wanted to kill me.”

So naturally my eyes were on Rain Man for much of the film (it’s an impressive, gorgeous animal). But it’s not the majesty of this creature that kept me engaged with the film, but rather a roster of beautifully realized characters, all of whom are brought to life wonderfully by the film’s excellent cast (no love lost to Cage, who despite giving 1000%, as expected, is not the performance of the film).

Based on the novel of the same name and shot in the gorgeous lands of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, Butcher’s Crossing follows the adventures of Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) a young man who eschews his privileged upbringing by dropping out of Harvard and heading out west to get a better understanding of the world. The year is 1874, and the expansion of white America into the West has decimated indigenous populations, and reduced the number of free range buffalo to a mere shadow of what it once was. The fur/hide trade has reached its nadir. What was once a seemingly endless stream of bison and profit is now reduced to a few scant herds. Americans overdoing it and killing their own supply in the name of monetary gain?!? Who ever heard of such a thing…

Will takes up with Miller (Nicolas Cage), an independent buffalo hunter who claims to have knowledge of a region where the animals still exist in large numbers. It’s not an easy trail to follow, but Will finances the trip in hopes of broadening his horizons, while skinner Fred (Jeremy Bobb) and “camp man” Charlie (an unrecognizable, scene-stealing Xander Berkeley) join the crew in the name of huge profits and loyalty, respectively.

It’s a “road movie” on the trail. Our protagonists battle the elements, the clock, and occasionally each other as they make their way westward. The plot, however, is secondary. This is a character piece through and through, and a tremendously satisfying one at that. Our leading foursome makes for an entertaining, if complicated hang. Miller is a mystery, the sort of guy upon which Old West legend is built. Fred is a drunken fool, but one who understands the dog eat dog nature of the world. Charlie is an old, damaged man looking to belong to anything at all. Will, our lead protagonist, is seeking legitimacy — proof that he’s useful beyond his financial status and the privileges afforded to him by his name. The story is in the character, and it’s through this that “based on a novel” is most evident. The picaresque road tale is a western genre standard, and here it is maximized to full effect. It would be easy for each man to descend into tropes, but the script embraces as many permutations of their characters as possible, fleshing out shifting loyalties alongside individual development.

At times, the script can be a bit on the nose. ADR dialogue is noticeable at points where the savvy can tell the a line or two were inserted in post to pave over a visual that didn’t quite provide the information it ostensibly needed to. Sometimes characters will exposit their thoughts in a way that feels scripted rather than natural (although I’m sure much of the dialogue is lifted from the source material), and as such is occasionally redundant. Yet our leading men manage to sell it in a big way, helping to reduce the artifice by making it feel like we’re watching an Old West legend unfold in real time.

Initially the digital photography seems a bit flat, but only until the hunting party sets out on their adventure, at which point it becomes clear that the cinematography has been designed to capture the vistas of Montana with jaw-dropping clarity. The Blackfeet Nation land is truly something to behold, its beauty conjuring the complicated feelings that any American might have when recognizing our violent history. So much beauty and humanity has been lost, with the remaining bits acting as a backdrop to a story about the very men who sought to mindlessly acquire without ever considering the responsibility that comes with it.

This thematic concern is driven home even harder by the exceptional scenes involving actual buffalo. These utterly convincing sequences were supervised by the Blackfeet Tribe Buffalo Program, whose goal it is to preserve and restore the American bison population. The majesty of these wonderful animals is monumentally felt throughout the course of the film, and it’s hard not to recognize the abandoned utility of the animal in regards to the skin trade. The hunters don’t think about the animals beyond their hides, and they only think about the hides in terms of the money they bring in. It’s a damn waste and a damn shame — and a tale as old as America itself. 

Shades of Damsel and even Bone Tomahawk are apparent throughout, but Butcher’s Crossing avoids the heightened nature of both, instead putting forth a lower-key story made sobering by its realism. The even pacing might register as blandness for viewers expecting a more classic western, but those willing to embark on this journey on its own terms will be rewarded by tremendous character work and a sneakily effective thematic structure. And for those who can’t jibe with it, you’ll still get to see a bald, bearded Nic cage monologue through pipe smoke about a secret “land of hellfire” where the buffalo roam. You want this, I promise.

Directed by Gabe Polsky

Written by Gabe Polsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, John Williams

Starring Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Paul Raci, Xander Berkeley

Rated R, 105 minutes