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MANIFF 2023 Review: Butcher’s Crossing – “Nicolas Cage goes full Captain Ahab”

Butcher’s Crossing is the film adaptation of the 1960 western novel by John Williams. I love the book and so was looking forward to seeing what Gabe Polsky would do with the film.

In the 1870s, a young Harvard dropout seeks his destiny out West by tying his fate to a team of buffalo hunters led by a man named Miller. Together, they embark on a harrowing journey risking life and sanity.

Polsky has put together a good cast – Nicolas Cage, Xander Berkeley, Fred Hechinger, Rachel Keller, Jeremy Bobb and Paul Raci – and on the whole, the film is a decent watch. Yet it doesn’t quite reach its full potential.

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Williams’ original novel was a more realistic take on the Western genre. Some people have called it an anti-western or neo-western as there are no heroic cowboys or gunfighters on display. Just people trying to live in an environment that cares nothing for them.

The film faithfully follows the plot of the book as we follow young Will Andrews (Hechinger) who enters the small town of Butcher’s Crossing as he tries to see all of America. He has that romantic outlook of the American old west that so many of us still have. His journey with Miller (Cage) to go hunting buffalo in a hidden valley does mean he gets to see the wilderness, but he quickly learns just how dangerous that can be as he heads into the heart of darkness!

The character of Miller is a Captain Ahab or Colonel Kurtz type. Miller yearns to bring in the largest haul of buffalo skins and show “the others” how good he is. However, his obsession to get all the buffalo in the valley risks the lives of all of them, while also speeding up the loss of the very lifestyle he is trying to keep alive. Cage does seem to be channelling Brando’s Apocalypse Now performance with his bald head and gazing into the distance.

Cage is perfect for the role and is as reliable as ever as he goes full Ahab. There were times I hoped he would really go for it and chew the scenery, but he seemed to be holding something back. I will say that his bald head and full beard did remind me of John Travolta’s current look which brought thoughts of a Western-styled Face/Off to mind. Xander Berkely is another outstanding actor, but the character he plays, Charley, does not give him that much to work with. Jeremy Bobb has more fun as Fred, the skinner who is always angry and just wants his money.

Then there is Fred Hechinger (The Pale Blue Eye), he does an admirable job as Will, but as the film goes on he almost disappears from the film despite being in many scenes. I am not sure whether it was an editing or scripting issue but about two-thirds in you could almost forget he is there. As the story is told from his point of view that did seem a bit odd. I can understand that the character basically becomes shell-shocked with what he witnessed but that could have been done in a way that had him still present for the whole film.

The look of the film stays close to that of a basic Western and on the whole, it plays things safe which is a shame. The story involves elements such as madness, obsession, cabin fever, and poisoned food yet it never goes all in on them. There are some brief moments of nightmarish or drug-like imagery but I wanted them to go bigger with them, especially when you have Nicolas Cage and Xander Berkeley in the cast.

Maybe with a larger budget, this could have been a truly incredible film, but instead, we get a rather pedestrian adaptation.

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