A story of disillusionment, bitterness and resistance set during the near extinction of the American buffalo, Gabe Polsky. Butchers Crossing it could have been a heartbreaking Werner Herzog movie a few decades ago. John Williams’ novel follows a privileged young man who drops out of Harvard in search of raw experience in the West and gets exactly what he’s paying for. Fred Hechinger (the white lotus) plays the anxious young man, who submits to the wisdom of a seasoned hunter (Nicolas Cage), but gradually comes to suspect that the man and his entire company (and perhaps the entire history of white men violating the American West?) is fundamentally flawed.
Though solidly done, it’s a western without enough fire or novelty to draw much interest, though its two leads should keep it from being completely lost in the crowd.
The bottom line
Solidly made, but no spark.
Event: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
To emit: Nicolas Cage, Fred Hechinger, Rachel Keller, Xander Berkeley, Jeremy Bobb, Paul Raci
Director: Gabe Polsky
Writers: Gabe Polsky Liam Satre Meloy
1 hour 47 minutes
Hechinger’s Will Andrews shows up in 1874 Kansas, looking for a buffalo-hide trader (McDonald, played by metal sound‘s Paul Raci) once his father did him a favor. The young man waits for McDonald to introduce him to a hunter, but the grumpy, impatient dealer has other ideas on how to return the favor: he drops that idea, he says; this life is a disease that ruins men.
Persevering, Will connects with Cage’s Miller, whose gruffness is relieved when he realizes that Will could put money where his curiosity is. Scowling beneath a shaved scalp and massive buffalo fur, he ends up offering to let Will finance an expedition in search of the “biggest booty” of animals anyone has ever seen here. As the men discuss hiring a team, and a pretty hooker acquaintance of Miller’s (Rachel Keller) approaches the boy admiringly, she can practically hear fingers slipping into Will’s pocket to steal it.
But all Miller really threatens to steal is her innocence. Along with a camp cook (Xander Berkeley, almost unrecognizable as Charlie) and a cantankerous skinner (Jeremy Bobb’s Fred), they set out for the Colorado mountains, dangerous terrain their peers wouldn’t enter.
It’s an arduous journey, but this isn’t epic, and Polsky doesn’t spend the time to really make us feel what men endure. Almost dying of thirst, they witness what the local tribes have done to the white men who came before them, and then they find it: a huge herd whose furs are healthier than they were used to seeing, all gathered in a valley where… It will be easy to collect. Easy, that is, if your spirit can bear to sit quietly for hours, firing rifle shot after rifle shot at beasts that could kill you if they got the idea. (Long, stomach-churning shots show fields full of mutilated buffalo, rotting away after Fred skins them.)
It takes an astonishingly long time, and the dollar signs in her eyes don’t stop the men from getting impatient and angry at each other. If there were signs of a heart of darkness they vibrate to Miller, who keeps his scalp like Kurtz with a giant Bowie knife, are now more fully manifested: long, long after they’ve gathered more pelts than they can carry, Miller keeps shooting, insisting on wiping out this herd entirely. By the time his men are ready to abandon him, it’s too late. Winter falls, closing off the pass of these mountains and forcing the hunting party to crouch for months.
This sequence is a little better at conveying the passage of time, given the tension that builds between these four quite different men. Already identified as the loose cannon, Fred begins to fight Charlie over his devout faith, then discovers that it’s not wise to blaspheme a Christian who makes his beans every night. Miller only becomes more determined, though Cage never breaks out into the kind of obsessed outbursts fans of his wild side will be expecting. And Will, having learned this trade and falling ill around the same time, is largely silent.
Although Will was “young and soft” when he arrived, Hechinger hardens as the film progresses through the winter, his dull expression forcing us to imagine what lessons this experience is teaching him. This could be the origin story of a cynical and soulless cattle baron, or it could be a flash of youthful recklessness for a man who will return East and practice law. One thing is pretty sure: whatever these hunters are paid, it won’t be worth it.
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