Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s Crossing is a haunting acid Western that grapples with themes of greed and manifest destiny against the stark backdrop of the American frontier. Adapted from the 1960 novel by John Williams, the film marks Polsky’s third directorial feature after documentaries Red Army and In Search of Greatness. Known for his contemplative style, Polsky seemed primed to translate the introspective source material to the screen.
The story follows Will Andrews, a young Harvard dropout who heads west seeking adventure. He falls under the influence of the grizzled buffalo hunter Miller, joining his obsessive quest to find a mythical valley overflowing with buffalo. What follows is a harrowing descent into madness that lays bare the grim costs of unchecked ambition.
With Nicolas Cage taking on the pivotal role of Miller, expectations were high for a gritty character study punctuated by Cage’s trademark intensity. Reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival have been decidedly mixed, with praise for the committed performances but criticism for Polsky’s languid pacing and opaque messaging.
As the film expands into wider release, we review Butcher’s Crossing to determine if it delivers on the promise of its Western antihero premise or loses its way in the search for thematic significance. By examining the key strengths and weaknesses observed across critical receptions, we assess whether Polsky’s adaptation warrants a spot on your watchlist.
Obsession Leads to Ruin on the Frontier
Butcher’s Crossing is set in the late 19th century, when the Western frontier still promised adventure for ambitious young men eager to prove themselves. In 1874, Will Andrews arrives in the small Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing, having abandoned his studies at Harvard against his father’s wishes. Will seeks purpose and meaning outside of privileged academia by experiencing life on the frontier. But his romantic notions of the West will soon meet harsh realities.
In Butcher’s Crossing, Will meets the grizzled buffalo hunter Miller, played with trademark intensity by Nicolas Cage. With his shaved head and thick beard, Miller has an imposing, almost mythic aura. He claims to know the location of a secluded valley in the Colorado Rockies brimming with buffalo, untouched by other hunters. Sensing destiny, Will convinces his skeptical father to provide funding to assemble an expedition party.
Joining them on the quest is Fred Schneider, a cynical buffalo skinner played by Jeremy Bobb, and Charley Hoge, a superstitious one-handed hunter portrayed by Xander Berkeley. Charley serves as Miller’s sole friend, having weathered many hunts together. But even he harbors concerns about Miller’s obsessive nature. With the party assembled, they set out to find Miller’s promised land of buffalo.
The journey proves far more harrowing than Will anticipated. As they lose their way and supplies dwindle, the inhospitable frontier pushes the men to their limits. Polsky’s editing induces a disorienting fever dream tone, reflecting the characters’ unraveling psyches against the harsh landscape. But Miller presses on, driven by visions of unchecked slaughter and profit.
When they finally reach the valley, the buffalo are indeed plentiful. Miller ruthlessly guns down animals one after another, with Will initially caught up in the thrill of the kill. But as the slaughter grows excessive, Will is consumed by disgust and horror. The other men plead with Miller to show restraint, but his madness only deepens.
In his mania, Miller drives the men beyond exhaustion in pursuit of more skins to sell. As paranoia and desperation poison their camp, Will comes to see Miller’s obsession as a microcosm for the destructive greed that fuels manifest destiny. But having ignited this quest, he lacks the power or will to stop the carnage. In the end, Miller’s insatiable hunger for conquest leads all of them down a path of profound tragedy. Their dreams corrupted, the landscape ravaged, the frontier exacts its toll in blood.
Nature’s Fury Meets Man’s Greed in Visceral Character Study
At its core, Butcher’s Crossing is a haunting excoriation of manifest destiny and the ravages of unchecked greed. Polsky leverages the sparse yet striking landscapes of the frontier to immerse us in the descent into madness of Miller and his expedition party. Through the young idealistic eyes of Will Andrews, we witness innocence lost in the unforgiving crucible of the West.
Cinematographer David Gallego floods the film with sun-bleached vistas and painterly mountain tableaus. The wilderness is rendered with savage beauty, at times serene yet harboring dangers from false trails to debilitating snowstorms. As the men invade deeper into untouched terrain, nature manifests as an antagonistic force, indifferent to their quest for conquest. Polsky alternates between the god-like scope of the environments and suffocating close-ups of the characters, reflective of their shrinking dominance.
The editing grows more jagged and disjointed as the expedition members, especially Will, lose their grip on reality. Time itself becomes elastic through Polsky’s liberal use of ellipses and feverish montages. We share the delirium of the men staring into the abyss of the frontier. The land that promised freedom instead delivers only madness.
At the center of this maelstrom is Nicolas Cage’s hypnotic performance as Miller. With his shorn head and manic stare, he resembles a wrathful prophet swaying his followers into oblivion. Miller’s ruthless efficiency as a hunter makes him an object of awe for the naive Will, who is lured by his tales of a bountiful valley. But Cage hints at inner demons that fuel Miller’s obsessive nature. His thousand-yard stare and cryptic ramblings suggest a manrunning from himself. Out here, killing is the only balm for his soul.
By contrast, Will Andrews retains a guileless optimism, embodied with coiled energy by actor Fred Hechinger. Drawn to the frontier’s promise of freedom, he passiveIy enables Miller’s worst excesses. As the death toll mounts among the buffalo herds, Hechinger depicts Will’s idealism curdling to guilt and helplessness. Wide-eyed at the start, he ends hollowed out, forced to lose his innocence too early.
The arcs of Miller and Will recall the downward spiral of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like Dobbs, Miller’s all-consuming greed poisons the expedition party to a point beyond salvation. Where Dobbs fixates on gold, Miller’s monomania is the destruction of nature itself. Both films conclude as a stark warning about the toxic fruits of unchecked ambition.
While the performances and cinematography create a potent atmosphere, Polsky struggles to match the depth of Sierra Madre’s psychological character study. We glean the outlines of Miller’s motivations but the nuances of his unraveling feel underwritten. And Will is often relegated to passive observer, spared the full brunt of Polsky’s ruthless worldview. Their suffering should seem more tragic when afforded deeper context.
Nonetheless, Polsky successfully channels the existential dread of the novel in visceral form. Man’s urge to exploit nature, and his fellow man, corrupts noble intentions into cruelty. In the lawless frontier, only nature’s stern justice prevails. The costs of greed and hubris are laid bare in the sun-bleached bones of the butchered buffalo. Polsky reminds us there are places where man does not belong, and dangers when the darkness within escapes into the light.
Committed Performances Clash with Uneven Execution
The stark beauty of Butcher’s Crossing owes much to Nicolas Cage’s ferocious lead performance as the haunted hunter Miller. Looming with imposing physicality, Cage captures Miller’s complicated interior world with subtle shifts of his eyes and voice. We believe in his mythic skills as a hunter, making his unraveling all the more chilling. Miller’s mercurial presence electrifies every scene, keeping us locked into his psychological downward spiral.
As his innocent foil, Fred Hechinger viscerally channels the overflowing awe and simmering unease of Will Andrews. His open-faced optimism at the start makes his later disillusionment more wrenching to witness. Hechinger’s charisma and physicality prove a worthy counterbalance to Cage’s grizzled intensity. Their tense chemistry heightens the film’s palpable dread.
In smaller roles, Xander Berkeley projects weary wisdom as Miller’s longtime fellow hunter, while Jeremy Bobb nails the petty cruelty of the expedition’s cynical opportunist. The core cast breathe life into archetypal frontier roles, lending psychological depth even when the script falters.
Director Gabe Polsky demonstrates a skilled eye for haunting panoramic landscapes and painterly framing. Cinematographer David Gallego fills the screen with the raw, primal beauty of the untouched frontier. Shots linger on the indifferent majesty of snow-capped mountain vistas and rolling prairie. The land’s harsh glory dwarfs the petty ambitions of the men who tread it.
Less assured is Polsky’s disjointed editing and pacing. His over-reliance on abstract montages as shorthand for the descent into madness creates tonal confusion. We grasp the characters’ fraying sanity but the blurred timeline divorces us from the grounded emotions needed to invest fully in their unraveling.
At just over 100 minutes, the runtime also feels constrained. More attention to the incremental escalations of greed and paranoia would bolster the atmospheric dread. Polsky’s artsy flourishes highlight his small budget, as the visual poetry compensates for thin character development. Expanding the running time could remedy this imbalance.
While condensing an acclaimed novel into film is no easy feat, one wonders if a miniseries format may have better served the rich thematic material. Polsky captures the existentialist core but the abridged timeframe rushes past many nuances. The source material’s sprawling frontier psychedelia becomes simplified through conventions of the Western genre rather than deepening our understanding.
Nonetheless, Polsky finds striking moments of visual poetry within the story’s existential meditation. He succeeds in transporting the viewer to the harsh majesty of the old frontier, a purgatory exposing man’s fragility. Butcher’s Crossing is a visually resplendent but unevenly rendered parable warning against the folly of exercising our worst natures untethered.
Haunting Soundscape Echoes Unraveling Psyches
The sparse yet haunting sound design and score work symbiotically to immerse us in the indifferent cruelty of the frontier. In line with the film’s fever dream editing, music is used judiciously to maximize its eerie impact. The absence of a traditional melodic score for much of the runtime amplifies the ominous silences of the remote wilderness. When music does emerge, it takes on a melancholy, dirge-like tone using mournful strings and spare piano. The score represents the fraying humanity and fading innocence of the characters.
Diegetic sound is used to visceral effect, from the thundering hooves of stampeding buffalo to the deafening blasts of rifles picking them off. The crackling of campfires and howling winds compound the lo-fi realism. As the men lose themselves in the landscape, the sounds of their undoing grow more surreal and distorted. Haunting vocal warbles and off-kilter metallic clangs seep in like an encroaching madness. Every bone-chilling creek or angry gust reflects the land reclaiming its dominion over the interlopers. The masterful soundscape drops us directly into the indifferent, at times sinister environment that engulfs body and soul.
Timeless Parable on Ruinous Ambition
Butcher’s Crossing joins a tradition of acid Westerns reckoning with the darker truths of American expansion. Like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it demythologizes the romanticism of Manifest Destiny. The descent into primeval madness echoes the surreal horror of Jim Jarmusch’s classic Dead Man. Though the characters bear period trappings, their choices resonate through time as a meditation on greed’s power to corrupt.
Polsky’s stripped-down tone poem aspires to the mythic grandeur of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in excavating the philosophical darkness at civilization’s edge. While falling short of such vaunted company, Butcher’s Crossing nonetheless confronts us with the grim costs of untethered ambition. It connects the historical hubris of Western settlement with timeless moral questions. In laying bare the ugliness that hides beneath naive dreams, this flawed parable reminds us no land can satisfy those who are never satisfied. Its lessons haunt long after the ghostly vistas fade.
Visually Resplendent but Uneven Morality Tale
Butcher’s Crossing represents a bold foray into the acid Western genre for director Gabe Polsky. His eye for arresting panoramic vistas and painterly framing evokes the raw primal beauty of the untamed frontier. Nicolas Cage’s simmering performance as the haunted hunter Miller electrifies the screen. And Fred Hechinger brings charm and gravity to the gradually disillusioned Will Andrews. Polsky succeeds in conjuring the existentialist dread at the heart of the source material.
However, uneven pacing and execution hinder a fuller cinematic realization. The film rushes past pivotal emotional turning points as Polsky leans on flashback montages rather than grounded character development. While visually striking, the disjointed timeline creates too much distance from the fraying psyches of the cast. Expanding the brisk 100 minute runtime could remedy this weakness.
Polsky also underserves the rich thematic substrate. Miller’s descent into obsessive madness and Will’s curdling innocence resonate as archetypes. But we glean too little of their inner lives as real people rooted in their time. The sprawling philosophical grandeur of the novel becomes stripped down to genre conventions. While the stark message about greed’s corrosive effects comes through, we sacrifice depth of characterization.
The cinematography and performances transport us potently to the lawless frontier, a purgatory where base instincts run unchecked. But the characters seem more mythic symbols than complex humans. Their suffering should devastatingly humble us, not abstractly reprove us. Polsky renders the sublime vistas of the West but misses some of its maddening nuance.
Still, Butcher’s Crossing succeeds as a haunting tone poem about nature’s stern justice against those who despoil it. Fans of Cage and lovers of lush Westerns will find much to admire in the evocative landscapes and committed acting. But those seeking a meaningful character study may leave disappointed.
The film’s visual poetry and Cage’s charisma make Butcher’s Crossing worth a watch despite its uneven execution. It falls short of the great Westerns, but Polsky’s bold vision announces his potential for richer future explorations of the genre. If you come for Cage and stay for the vistas, Butcher’s Crossing satisfies as a bleak meditation on man’s folly. Just don’t expect a nuanced masterpiece.
Butcher’s Crossing is a visually arresting but unevenly executed morality tale elevated by Cage's hypnotic lead performance. Polsky succeeds in translating the novel's meditative dread, if not all its philosophical richness. This film is flawed yet undeniably bold.
- Stunning cinematography that vividly brings the harsh frontier landscapes to life
- Nicolas Cage gives an intense, hypnotic performance as the obsessed hunter Miller
- Fred Hechinger provides an effective counterbalance as the naive but sympathetic Will
- Excellent supporting cast including Xander Berkeley and Jeremy Bobb
- Ambitious themes related to greed, manifest destiny, and man vs. nature
- Creates a strong atmosphere of existential dread and descending madness
- Visual style and editing evoke a surreal, feverish tone
- Uneven pacing and reliance on montages undercuts character development
- Short runtime rushes past pivotal emotional turns
- Thematic depth and nuance from the novel is lost
- Characters feel more like archetypes than fully realized people
- Disjointed editing and timeline distance us from the fraying psyches
- Lacks emotional impact and tragic weight compared to the best Westerns
- Ambitious ideas simplified into genre conventions