BUTCHER’S CROSSING [Blu-Ray Review]: Cage On The Range

“El Sacerdote” J.L. Caraballo Letterboxd @captzaff007

Topping off what has probably been his most character-driven performance in the recent Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage returns to his thespian form in Butcher’s Crossing, a small-stakes, epic-scale Western directed by Gabe Polsky (Red Penguins; The Motel Life), and adapted from the 1960 novel of the same name written by John Edward Williams. Buoyed by Cage’s performance and making great use of its Montana setting, and moving at a brisk pace. I had missed this in theaters — truthfully, this might not have even had that large of a theatrical run — but was lucky enough to catch a blu-ray, which proved to be enjoyable. Even on the small screen, the sense of Western adventure, and the beauty of the terrain, came through perfectly.

Set in the early 1870s, the film focuses on Will Andrews (Eighth Grade‘s Fred Hochinger), a Harvard student who drops out of the prestigious school and heads West, into the titular Kansas town, hoping to make it rich in the buffalo hide trade. Naive, yet ambitious, Will tries in vain to partner with his pastor father’s friend, MacDonald (Paul Raci), who is among the last of the dwindling buffalo suppliers of the town; rebuffed by the family friend, Will then partners with Miller (Cage), experienced, grizzled, determined, and more than just a little bit intense for the trade. Despite warnings from locals about teaming with the buffalo trader, Will saddles up with Miller, Hoge (Xander Berkeley, Terminator 2, The Mentalist) — a one-armed, Bible-spewing drunk — and Schneider (Jeremy Bobb, The Knick) — an experienced “skinner” who is doubtful of Miller’s boasts. Together the team (financed fully by Will’s money) are committed to tracking down one of the few remaining massive buffalo herds out in Colorado, hoping to make a fortune before winter rolls up.

That’s the set-up, and it plays it very close to the chest. What sells the film are the performances; Hochinger, more than anyone else in the cast, really, was a surprise; this was a role very unlike the one for which he’d made his breakout some five or six years ago. He’s got some range to him, and he sells Will’s naivety really well, but makes the character compelling enough so that his transition at the end feels real and organic. Cage, for his part, is the main sell of this film however; this is a more subdued performance more akin to his turn in Pig than in, say, last year’s Renfield, or even Dream Scenario, which find him playing within the surreality of dream logic. With a close-cropped beard and bald head, he even visually evokes his late-year performance, although Miller’s obsessive, exacting, determined, capital-M-Masculine character could not be more different from Dream Scenario‘s nebbish Paul Matthews. Somehow, Cage makes sitting in the snow and shaving his head with a straight razor entertaining and compelling.

Cinematographer David Gallego‘s keen eye is another winner in Butcher’s Crossing: even on the small screen, the rolling, expansive frontier is lush, at once seemingly never-ending, and yet crushing in its remorselessness. And once the violence occurs (there is plenty of it, once Miller and gang come upon their prize buffalo), the film turns at points both thrilling, and, somewhat paradoxically, mournful. Knowing what will eventually become of the American buffalo over the decades, the camera never pulls away from showing just how brutal poachers and cowboys once were to these animals. From the warm daylit hues to the harsh, stark cold hues of the encroaching winter, Gallego manages to turn the Western setting, itself, into a character just as real as Will and Miller. Director Polsky — having cut his teeth mainly working as a documentary director — brings a keen sense of realism to the performances and storytelling, making Butcher’s Crossing feel as a real as any other old-timey Western town.

Breezy, epic, and with real, compelling performances, Butcher’s Crossing is a sleek ride through the West of the past. Perfectly paced, beautifully shot, and brisk in length (the entire film is maybe an hour and forty-five minutes), this is another in the late-stage portfolio of compelling Nicolas Cage performances. And although I haven’t seen it yet, I imagine this would make a great double feature with last year’s OTHER Nicolas Cage Western The Old Way.

4/5 buffalo hides

Butcher’s Crossing is available on blu-ray and streaming.