(WEHT) – Butcher’s Crossing is the film adaptation of John Edward Williams’s 1960 novel about four buffalo hunters who journey to the Colorado territory. Directed by Gabe Polsky, the film stars Nicholas Cage as Miller, a hunter who becomes obsessed with the carnage of the hunt and thrill of dominating nature. Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) is the novel’s protagonist, but the film relegates him alternately to the story’s wavering conscience or merely the passive point of view character. Much of the film’s conflict centers on the rest of the party, including Jeremy Bobb’s character, Fred, becoming increasingly concerned about Miller’s bison bloodlust.
Polsky’s direction is alternately visually arresting and maddeningly paced. The beautiful vistas and long tracking shots of the western landscape are feasts, but the story doesn’t properly start until well into the forty-minute mark. Conversations about God and faith likely have a great deal of resonance for those who have read Williams’s novel, but they feel like unexplored themes shoehorned into the film.
Likewise, numerous mentions of Native tribes make their presence felt even though no Natives appear on screen. While so much of Butcher’s Crossing’s action can be interpreted as a metaphor for the violence of Manifest Destiny, this theme also lacks all the exploration it deserves. The field of desecrated buffalo corpses and the waste of the hunting party recalls the worst atrocities of “conquering the old west,” and this is both where the movie is the strongest and where I wish it would have spent more of its attention.
Cage gives a very strong performance. He captures Miller’s mania as only an unhinged Cage can, but there is a sensitivity to other moments. Miller is a complex character, and Cage dives into his psyche as much as the film allows. The repetitive scenes of buffalo murder lack directorial restraint, even as Cage performs them admirably.
Polsky likely didn’t have all the resources he needed to tell this story well. Budget constraints seem obvious in one sequence toward the film’s end, and proper time and exploration of some of the more resonant themes might have been possible if the production had more resources. As it is, Butcher’s Crossing is frustrating because of how good it could have been.