Butcher’s Crossing is not the freshest of Westerns, but it does offer some bleak and gnarly imagery, gorgeous vistas, and Nicolas Cage in a subtle but poignant performance

Butcher's Crossing Review

This is an advanced review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Butcher's Crossing made its world premiere. It does not yet have a release date.

Butcher’s Crossing is a neo-Western drama with a descent into psychological madness. This is a movie about interrogating the myths of the American West, of heroism and masculinity, and man’s control over nature. Nicolas Cage continues his streak of subtle but captivating roles as a veteran buffalo hunter with an obsession, and the film features some gorgeous vistas. Sadly, its traditional script offers few surprises and little insight. This is a bleak and ultimately not very memorable movie that nevertheless tells an important story.
It’s set in 1874, a time of the American Frontier, where mass migration and exploration dominated the minds of impressionable young men hoping to prove themselves in the Wild West. We've seen plenty of stories about this time period, including a fair share of survival thrillers about man’s attempts to tame nature, but few movies have shined a light on the horrible manners by which men tried to tame nature. The best parts of Butcher’s Crossing illuminate how commercial- and government-sanctioned (and encouraged) hunting of the American bison was driving bloodthirsty men to massacre the species — and directly making the Native American population starve and be driven away from their homes and into Indian Reservations.
The film follows Will (Fred Hechinger), a young Harvard student who drops out of school and decides a real man is not found buried in books and studies, but out in the wilderness surviving against the elements and doing the very manly act of hunting innocent, docile, and defenseless animals with a big-ass rifle while standing quietly at a distance. To accomplish this ordeal, he heads to Kansas, once a place where buffalo were so abundant they resembled a black sea of fur, but now, there are hardly any animals to massacre for their hide and leave their corpses to rot.
So what’s a young, idealistic boy to do but hire the baddest-looking hunter around? That’s a man who seems like he could be the ancestor of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, a Captain Ahab of the land who looks as if Nicolas Cage was preparing to play Kratos but with a cowboy hat, to take you on a journey to track down a mythical herd the hunter once saw years ago but no one believes is real – a herd of premium hides that will fetch a very pretty penny. Of course, completing this journey is easier said than done, and between the elements, the treacherous roads, and Cage’s Miller getting obsessed with eliminating every last buffalo on the planet, the men’s resolve will be tested, their manhood challenged as the young lad starts to ponder whether human nature and the myth of the West were all he hoped they would be.
Butcher’s Crossing struggles to find anything fresh to say about the themes it presents.
Cage’s performance is another nuanced one, as Miller is obsessive and ruthless, hiding years of work, sacrifice, and pain in a few smoldering looks. Hechinger, meanwhile, captures Will’s slow descent into madness and despair, seeing all his ideals and his dreams of heroism shattered with each new defenseless buffalo that Miller mows down with gusto. It’s true: this is one bleak movie, and those with a low tolerance for images of animal death may want to steer clear of the hundreds of shots of buffalo dropping dead.
Butcher’s Crossing find a great balance between showing us grandiose and awe-inspiring vistas that make you want to root for these adventurers as they traverse the Colorado Territory, and juxtapose it with image after image of the blood-soaked hunters mowing down buffalo, skinning them, then throwing away their organs. And yet, despite a poignant commentary about the total annihilation of the American bison and its impact on the Native American peoples (mostly relegated to an end credits text), Butcher’s Crossing struggles to find anything fresh to say about the themes it presents. There are moments of tension to be had, certainly, but they are rather predictable, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything especially illuminating in the story. This is not the fault of the actors, who visibly try to dig deeper, but the movie’s runtime (at one hour and 45 minutes) doesn’t give them much room to play with the script, which remains at surface level in terms of themes and characterization.
The 40 Most 'Nicolas Cage' PerformancesRead on for the 40 most memorable performances that any Nicholas Cage-curious person should experience, one for each year the man has been working in film…<b>40. The Best of Times (1981)</b><br><br>
OK, so I know I said above that we’re celebrating 40 years of Cage in cinema here, and that is a (nearly) accurate timetable. His first film role was in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it non-speaking part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. However, if we’re going to look at the true breadth of the man’s career, we have to start at the actual beginning, and in this case that is 1981’s failed TV pilot turned TV movie The Best of Times.<br><br>

Intended as a sort of Laugh-In-style sketch comedy show for teens, Cage is a supporting player in a cast fronted by his former high school classmate Crispin Glover. Watching it now, it’s not hard to see why this show didn’t get picked up. What jokes it has are truly awful even by the low standards of the era, the musical numbers (which include maybe the single worst rendition of “9 to 5” you’ll ever hear in your life) are rancid, and its sole notable star of the time is a grumpy Jackie Mason as a local convenience store owner. And yet, there is something truly fascinating in watching it in the modern era, especially if you have any interest in Cage in particular. He’s the cast’s himbo, a surfer doofus who alternates between helping his nerdy best friend with the ladies and giving a lengthy emotional monologue about his anxieties over being drafted for the coming war in El Salvador (!). Is this really one of Cage’s “great” performances? Probably not, but it’s certainly memorable, and there’s always value in seeing where it all began. Thankfully, the whole thing’s on YouTube if you want to check it out for yourself.
<b>39. Guarding Tess (1994)</b><br><br>
There’s a pretty good bit in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent where Pedro Pascal’s Nick Cage superfan regales a crowd of partygoers with a story of how he and his estranged father were finally able to bond shortly before his death after catching a random showing of Guarding Tess on a hospital television. The joke is, of course, that it is a patently ridiculous idea for anyone to have real feelings toward a movie as lightly forgettable as Guarding Tess, let alone have a true emotional bonding moment over it. But especially juxtaposed against the remainder of Cage’s mainstream comedy output throughout the ’90s (the less said about stuff like Amos & Andrew and Trapped in Paradise, the better), Guarding Tess is honestly something of a highlight.<br><br>

It’s not a Great Film, but an agreeable enough one that features Cage’s tightly wound secret service agent Doug Chesnic repeatedly squaring off against Shirley MacLaine’s irritable and irrepressible former First Lady Tess Carlisle. MacLaine and Cage have an easy sort of chemistry that makes their repeated clashes a good bit of fun, and while the story doesn’t really go anywhere of note, the movie mostly skates by on the abundant charm of its lead players. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of movie you’d watch with your parents and have a pleasant time with, though I’ll stop short of promising any emotional breakthroughs following your viewing.
<b>38. Dying of the Light (2014) / Dark (2017)</b><br><br>
This is a weird one that I’m including as much for the story behind the film(s) as I am Cage’s work. Cage is pretty damn captivating in Dying of the Light, a story about a CIA operative who is slowly degenerating from a form of dementia, and obsessed with finding the terrorist leader who once badly injured him and ended his work in the field. The movie itself? Kind of a drag. It takes an interesting concept and mostly tells a by-the-numbers revenge tale that wouldn’t be notable at all save for the bit of extra oomph Cage gives the character.<br><br>

As it turns out, there were once grander plans for Dying of the Light that were halted due to a conflict between director Paul Schrader and the producers. To hear Schrader tell it, he was effectively locked out of the editing room, and the producers excised much of the flavor and specialized color grading he intended to apply in post-production. Schrader disowned the final cut of the film, and both Cage and co-star Anton Yelchin posted photos of themselves in T-shirts featuring the text of the non-disparagement clause in their contracts. Crazy stuff! But it doesn’t end there. Three years later, Schrader released Dark, an alternate cut of Dying of the Light using the workprint materials he still had. It’s a shorter version and you can definitely see where he had to DIY some of his ideas into what he had, but it’s a fascinating thing. He even threw the movie up on The Pirate Bay for everyone to see, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a director doing before. Is Dark a great film? Maybe not quite, but it’s an unusual little artifact that’s certainly a fascinating watch compared to the original version.

<b>37. Never on Tuesday (1989)</b><br><br>
I hope I am not stretching credibility here by including a movie Nicolas Cage appears in for roughly 30 seconds, but I was gonna have to jam one of the actor’s many cameo appearances in here somewhere, and I’m not sure there’s another on his resume that delivers more bang in such a short amount of screen time. In Never on Tuesday, a direct-to-VHS sex comedy about a pair of idiots who get into a car accident with a sexy lesbian in the middle of the desert, Cage pulls up long enough to make an indelible impression and turn an otherwise extremely forgettable movie into an important piece of Cage-ian lore. <br><br>

To be clear, Cage is not the only cameo here. Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Cary Elwes and Gilbert Gottfried all make single-scene appearances too, but Cage’s minute of lunacy is the standout. He pulls up in a Ferrari wearing a giant Pinocchio nose and doing his best Emo Phillips voice, asking the stranded motorists if they need a lift before letting out a pained cackle and screeching off-screen. That’s it! That’s the whole performance, or at least what we got in the final edit. To hear Cage tell it, he had a whole character worked out for this cameo, a tragic figure whose father bought him that Ferrari to make up for his horrible childhood being teased as “Pinocchio” for his physical deformity. Director Adam Rifkin says that somewhere, there’s footage of him riffing on this character in greater detail, and I was kind of hoping after I (accidentally) made this clip go viral that someone would have snagged the rights and put out a new release of the movie, perhaps with some of that lost footage. So far, all signs point to that never happening. Oh well.
<b>36. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)</b><br><br>
One of the key things to understanding Nicolas Cage and the trajectory of his career is in understanding how he made use of the advantages he had early on. Cage is, after all, a Coppola, and his uncle Francis certainly wasn’t shy about giving his nephew opportunities, casting him as one of the supporting toughs in 1983’s Rumble Fish, as gangster Vincent Dwyer in the notorious flop The Cotton Club, and as Kathleen Turner’s high school sweetheart-turned-ex-husband in Peggy Sue Got Married. With the exception of Rumble Fish, which he mostly plays straight, Cage seems like he’s actively working to sabotage his role in the others, perhaps out of some desire to break free of the Coppola legacy.<br><br>

It’s especially glaring in Peggy Sue. Most of the movie is a by-the-books “what if?” time travel story, where Turner’s Peggy Sue passes out at her high school reunion and wakes up all the way back in 1960, where she’s still a teenager and suddenly able to reconfigure the aspects of her life she most deeply regrets. Cage plays Charlie, the man she eventually regrets marrying, and he digs into the role by affecting a nasally voice based on Pokey. Yes, of Gumby fame. Coppola hated the choice and Turner was baffled by it, but he somehow managed to convince his uncle not to fire him from the movie. There’s no good reason for this choice. It’s a distracting affect that doesn’t add anything to an otherwise thin character. He also takes opportunities to confusingly skulk around like Max Schreck in Nosferatu. It’s like he’s trying to do everything he can to never be cast in a Coppola movie again, and as it turns out, it worked.<br><br>

All of that said, if you want to understand the many wild and often successful choices Cage has made as an actor, it helps to experience the ones that don’t quite pan out. And if nothing else, Cage is far from boring in a movie that sometimes struggles to stay interesting. Peggy Sue Got Married probably needed something off-kilter to give it a boost, it just wasn’t exactly this.
Butcher’s Crossing ends up as a conventional, if rather gnarly, neo-Western about the horrors behind the myth of the American West. It may not break the mold, but hey, if you ever wanted to see Nicolas Cage give his best Brando while sporting a cowboy hat, there is still some enjoyment to be had here.
This story originally appeared on: IGN - Author:Rafael Motamayor

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