On US and UK streaming platforms, Gabe Polsky’s adaptation of John Edward Williams’ novel is a good example of a film that needs a little bit of context for potential viewers; it’s one thing to expect an audience to self-select, but they have to know what they’re self-selecting for. Butcher’s Crossing is a stark, revisionist Western that aims to blow apart the myths about the Old West; you could argue we’ve been revising tropes since James Stewart in Winchester ’73 in 1950, but Butcher’s Crossing brings something new and unmistakably bleak to the party. There’s a modern respect for Native American traditions, but it’s also important you know that there’s a strong emphasis on the hunting and culling of buffalo, and if that sounds like an uncomfortable watch to those who don’t want to see meat this close to the bone, there’s plenty else on streaming.
Polsky has a producer credit on one of Nicolas Cage’s most celebrated performances in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans, and the actor repays him here with a restrained, measured performance as bald, bearded pipe-smoking buffalo hunter Miller, who takes an inexperienced young drop-out named Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) on a fraught Montana hunt, departing from and arriving back at the town of Butcher’s Crossing. Miller initially suggests that newbie Andrews would be ‘better off chopping wood’ but Andrews has a thirst for a Jack London-type of adventure. ‘I would like to go on a hunt, sir,’ is how Andrews cutely introduces himself, but the hunt he experiences is anything but fun.
‘If you disappear in this country, you’re gone,’ Milles tells Andrews, and there’s problems everywhere; signs promise ‘Indian land for sale’ but Miller and his men lack the money to take advantage of their white privilege, which doesn’t seem that privileged here. Polsky’s film makes no bones about their lowly status on the food chain, with no safety nets, financial or otherwise to save Miller’s men from workplace accidents. There’s religious debate, with a one-armed Bible-bashing cook along for the ride, and horrific detail about how to control, skin and consume buffalo; a sobering end-title card mentions that the number of wild buffalo fell from sixty million to a few hundred in a couple of decades, and addresses how this film was made in an environmentally friendly way to match today’s morality.
‘If we stop now, we’ll never start again,’ is a typical line here; this is a down-beat, verging on tragic Western, where pinned down characters discuss waiting eight months to traverse a difficult pass. If you’re looking for upbeat, cheerful fare, then one look at Cage’s baleful stare will tell you to seek solace elsewhere, but if you’re up for a tough, thoughtful, gritty watch, Butcher’s Crossing has a dark style and heart-breaking sense of hard-scrabble endurance that only a real adventure can provide, and that’s largely due to Cage’s magnetic presence in the leading role.
Thanks to Sony for access to this title.