Nicolas Cage in Grimly Fatalistic Western

It’s been a bit more than a year since “Butcher’s Crossing” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but the timing of its theatrical release could hardly be more propitious. Director Gabe Polsky’s grimly fatalistic Western has finally arrived at the megaplexes just days after the PBS airing of “The American Buffalo,” Ken Burns’ fascinating (and often infuriating) documentary about how bison were very nearly hunted into extinction in this country before an unlikely group of preservations saved the shaggy beasts. As Burns emphasizes in his two-part film, and Polsky’s drama duly notes during its end credits, an estimated 60 million bison roamed the American West as late as 1860. Two decades later, however, the bison population plunged to less than 300.

Working from a script he and Liam Satre Meloy adapted from the novel by John Edward Williams, Polsky suggests that this staggering decrease was caused largely by men like Miller, the life-hardened buffalo hunter effectively played by Nicolas Cage with equal measures of seasoned authority and tamped-down menace.

When we first encounter Miller in Butcher’s Crossing, an aptly named 1874 Kansas town where the major industry is freighting buffalo hides, Miller seems implacably obsessed yet not entirely unreasonable as he talks about making a once-in-a-lifetime “big kill” in a valley hidden deep in the Colorado Territory. He claims he stumbled across the place years earlier, and witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands, of buffalo roaming undisturbed. All he needs to capture “one of the biggest hauls anyone has ever seen,” Miller says, is a dependable crew and, of course, financial backing.

Enter Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger), the privileged son of a Presbyterian minister, who has dropped out of Harvard to, as he puts it, “expand my understanding of the world beyond Boston.” He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing hoping to find work with McDonald (Paul Raci), a distant family friend who found God under the guidance of Will’s father, and made his fortune in the buffalo-hide trade. But the grizzled trader, who once handled 100,000 hides in the course of year, knows the demand for buffalo fur already is diminishing, and he isn’t seeking new employees. More important, he warns Will not to accept work in any other hunting party: “You start out with those men, and it’ll ruin you. It’ll get in you like buffalo lice. You’ll be rotten from the inside.”

Unfortunately, Will ignores McDonald’s counsel. Even more unfortunately, he soon makes the acquaintance of Miller, who is more than willing to overlook the young man’s inexperience and bring him along for the dangerous ride —provided Miller makes a sizable cash investment in the enterprise.

“Butcher’s Crossing” is at heart a brutal coming-of-age story, as Will — a character who might be described as a tenderfoot in a more traditional Western — loses his innocence while discovering that McDonald’s warnings were, if anything, understated. He joins Miller, a crotchety Bible-thumping cook named Charlie (Xander Berkeley), and a cynical skinner named Fred (Jeremy Bobb) in the long trek through dangerous territory that other hunters have avoided, to arrive at the site in the Colorado mountains where Miller plans to make his dreams come true.

But dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares.

Even before they reach the remote valley, Miller comes across as a volatile mix of Captain Ahab and John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in “Red River,” relentlessly pushing himself and his men as they risk dying of thirst, encountering hostile Indians (who are referenced but never seen), or simply getting irretrievably lost. After they finally do reach their destination, however, Miller — whose shaven head unavoidably conjures memories of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”) — descends into something perilously close to madness as he systematically slaughters scads of bison, winding up with far more hides than he and his team could reasonably expect to transport back to Butcher’s Crossing.

Will is repeatedly sickened by the carnage — indeed, the graphic depiction of the killing and skinning may repulse members of the audience as well — and Fred pointedly warns that they should leave before winter snow blocks their path home. Which, of course, it eventually does, setting us up for an intense drama on the order of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” as greed and isolation take their psychic toll.

Trouble is, there is a conspicuous dearth of genuine suspense throughout “Butcher’s Crossing,” a movie that, while compelling in stretches, is too ponderous overall to achieve the impact for which it obviously strives. Polsky peppers the film with Will’s dreams and hallucinations, sequences that resemble nothing so much as the bad LSD trips in drug-centric 1960s exploitation flicks, and are more annoying than illuminating. The characters are so thinly written that they are almost entirely defined by the actors playing them. This is particularly true of the young prostitute played by Rachel Keller, who’s seen early in the film and later in Will’s fantasies, and doubtless will remind some movie buffs of the belly dancer who fleetingly appears in Robert Aldrich’s “The Flight of the Phoenix” primarily so they could place a woman on the poster.  

And yet it would be unfair to dismiss “Butcher’s Crossing” entirely out of hand. David Gallego’s striking cinematography enhances both the beauty and the threats of the natural landscapes — the movie was shot in Montana — and Cage is welcomely understated in a performance that is all the more impressive for his avoiding his trademark excess. Call it dialing down to a 6 from an 11, and you won’t be far off the mark.

Ultimately, “Butcher’s Crossing” works best as a blunt-force cautionary tale depicting how the West was lost because of men like Miller, who wantonly raped the land while seeking fortunes or, in Will’s case, satisfying their curiosity. The bitterly ironic ending stops short of force-feeding just desserts to all of the characters. But it’s a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.

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