Review by Jonathan Berk
There are seven Nicolas Cage films releasing in 2023 in some capacity or another. The thing is, most of them have been pretty good this year — especially compared to some of his recent output. Butcher’s Crossing is a slow-burn of a Western that initially is hard to read what role Cage will take in this film. Will he be the protagonist, or will he be the crazy evil antagonist looking to pull one over on the actual hero? Instead, Cage delivers a much more nuanced performance in director Gabe Polsky’s film.
In 1874, Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) is the son of a Harvard man who is set to have an easy life, but chooses to drop out of school to explore America’s Western frontier. He meets Miller (Nicolas Cage), a mysterious but ambitious hunter who claims to know of a gigantic Buffalo herd hidden in the Colorado wilderness. Andrews is warned that Miller has been claiming this for a long time, but trusts Miller’s story and pays for the expedition. The film is based on the novel by John Edward Williams and adapted by Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy.
Cage looks cool in this film. Opting to go full bald, Cage’s character immediately feels hard to read. He seems kind to Hechinger’s character, despite him being clearly out of his depths. There are comments made by several characters that this isn’t the world Hechinger's character is cut out for. Thus, it would be wise to anticipate this being a film about a double cross. We may read that Cage sees Hechinger as an easy mark, with money just waiting to be taken from him. Instead, that’s not at all what the story is concerned with. While the film reflects on the role of masculinity, it is most concerned with man’s relationship with nature and human nature.
The hunting party adds Charlie (Xander Berkeley) and Fred (Jeremy Bobb), and they venture off with lots of questions. Cage looks down on the current skin trade, as hunting has gotten scarce because the buffalo are being picked off at alarming rates. He is determined to land a big score of quality skins. The men are tested at every step of the journey. Even before they leave, we start to see the potential explosive personalities in the party and how things could easily go wrong. The tension builds and releases multiple times during the film, keeping the audience hooked.
Of course, a Western requires great cinematography with gorgeous landscapes. The film was primarily shot on land owned by the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. There are some breathtaking shots throughout the film that fit right into the genre. Then, some moments are designed to reflect the characters' emotional state, as things take some twists in turns and their survival is questioned. The overall look of the film works and builds to a strong ending.
Butcher’s Crossing is a well-made film with a story worth thinking about once the credits roll. There is a lot to reflect on in the film. Not every theme is fully explored, and some aspects that seem vital to the overall commentary don’t land as hard as they should. However, the images shown just before the credits and title cards about the buffalo ensure audiences get the point.
Butcher’s Crossing will be in select theaters on October 20.