Butcher’s Crossing Review:
A Harvard dropout (Fred Hechinger) embarks on a journey to the American West, following a buffalo hunter (Nicolas Cage) in the 1870s. The naive young man is about to learn some harsh lessons about brutality, greed, and the insatiable thirst for blood in the pursuit of buffalo. “Butcher’s Crossing,” adapted from John Edward Williams’ classic Western novel, paints a vivid picture of this untamed era. The stunning landscapes are stained by the carcasses of majestic animals, their hides sought after at any cost.
A Tale of Naivety and Ambition
William Andrews (Fred Hechinger) leaves behind the hallowed halls of Harvard and the comforts of Boston, seeking adventure and a deeper understanding of America. His journey takes him to Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, where he aims to join one of JD McDonald’s (Paul Raci) buffalo hunts. But McDonald scoffs at the inexperienced young man, warning him that this path can lead to death.
Undeterred, William finds another opportunity at the local saloon. There, he encounters Miller (Nicolas Cage), a bald and intimidating figure who weaves tales of a hidden valley in the Colorado Territory, teeming with buffalo. To fund this adventure, Miller needs $500, and William is captivated by the promise of such a grand expedition.
Butcher’s Crossing Review: The Journey Begins
The following day, William and his newfound companions set out on their perilous journey. They include Charlie Hage (Xander Berkeley), a one-handed cook and devout believer, and Fred Schneider (Jeremy Bobb), a feisty skinner who demands upfront payment. As they cross the plains, the magnitude of their endeavor becomes clear. They’re soon faced with thirst and dwindling supplies.
The Flaws in the Narrative
Director and co-writer Gabe Polsky (known for “The Motel Life” and “In Search of Greatness”) takes us on a brisk journey but could have benefited from more exposition. William’s quick alignment with Miller feels somewhat unrealistic, given the dire financial investment he makes with a stranger. A scene establishing Miller’s reputation before their meeting would have set more realistic expectations.
Character Development and Clashing Personalities
As the journey progresses, the ensemble reveals their true personalities. Miller seeks glory and recognition as he aspires to return to Butcher’s Crossing with a mountain of hides. Fred persistently teases William about his crush on Francine and provides graphic depictions of what his money could buy from her. Charlie is a devout Christian struggling to tolerate the heathen behavior around him. William, on the other hand, transforms through hardship, toughened by sickness, killing, and the harsh conditions. Yet, he struggles to challenge Miller’s iron grip.
Splendor and Hardship of the Wilderness
Polsky excels at capturing the splendor and challenges of the pristine wilderness. The epic shots of untouched natural beauty provide William with the visual feast he had yearned for. However, he vastly underestimates the price of survival in the unforgiving winter. Cold tears the men apart as they grapple with the consequences of their greed. Cage and Bobb deliver riveting performances as two alphas locked in bitter conflict. William is torn between loyalty to his unyielding mentor, and the moral quandary of whether their lives are worth a mountain of buffalo skins.
From Thrill to Gory Aftermath
The hunting and skinning scenes are graphic and unsettling. Polsky doesn’t spare the audience from the harsh reality of buffalo hunting, from knives castrating dead bulls to flesh peeled from bloodied fur and poisoned entrails to deter lurking wolves. William transitions from being horrified to becoming robotic in his duties. The thrill of the chase and kill evaporates in the gory aftermath, and he comes to understand the wastefulness of Miller’s rapacious efforts.
A Lesson of Accountability
The film reminds us of the near-extinction of the American bison, emphasizing the need for accountability. We must make amends for the past and work towards the recovery of this vital species, which played a crucial role in the greatness of our country.
“Butcher’s Crossing” takes us on a harrowing journey to the American West, where the pursuit of buffalo hides reveals the dark sides of humanity. The film is a gritty exploration of ambition, greed, and the heavy toll it takes on both the land and the people. The characters’ transformation, the brutality of buffalo hunting, and the stunning wilderness all contribute to a thought-provoking cinematic experience.
With this film’s theatrical release coinciding with Ken Burns’ “The American Buffalo” documentary, it’s a poignant reminder of the impact humanity has had on the environment and the consequences we must face. These narratives, one in documentary form and the other in the realm of fiction, combine to offer valuable insights into the past and present.
As you leave the theater after watching “Butcher’s Crossing,” you’ll be left with a profound sense of the wilderness, the allure of the American West, and the price paid for its exploitation. So, if you’re a fan of Westerns, character-driven narratives, and thought-provoking cinema, this double feature of film and documentary is a must-see. Enjoy the show!