Gabe Polsky’s new acid Western “Butcher’s Crossing,” premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, takes place on the vast fertile plains of hubris, where if you stare far enough into the horizon, you can probably see your own uppance come.
Based on a novel by John Williams (not that one, this one) takes place in Kansas in 1874, where a young wide-eyed student named Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger, “Fear Street”) has abandoned his Ivy League education in favor of seeing the country and palling around with buffalo hunters. It’s a decision that old man McDonald (Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”), a fur trader and distant friend of the family, thinks is intensely ill-advised, so he warns him — in a tone so condescending it was practically guaranteed to have the opposite of its intended effect — that following this path will lead Will to soul-obliterating ruin.
Undeterred, Will proceeds to ally himself with the first semi-friendly person he meets, a hunter named Miller (Nicolas Cage), who has a foolhardy dream of his own. At a time when buffalo hunting has been increasingly difficult, Miller claims to have found a hidden valley filled with the furry beasts. It’s so hard to find, only he can do it. And he just needs hundreds of dollars in financing.
Will agrees immediately, proving he’s really great at decision-making, and they put together a small team of ne’er-do-wells to join them. There’s Charlie Hoge (Xander Berkeley), a kindly old-timer with only one hand, and an irritable skinner named Fred Schneider (Jeremy Bobb, “South of Heaven”), who’s going to be a real pain in the saddle every step of the miserable, arid, painful way.
Trekking to Miller’s hidden valley is a descent into hell, but the thing about descents into hell is that the destination is, by definition, even worse than the journey. Miller may find his buffalo, but he’s not just obsessed with hunting game; he wants to punish them for his life’s miserable failings and to dominate the land until its lifeless corpse is his own. They stay too long, and for all the wrong reasons, and sure enough, madness seeps into their camp and makes a horrid home there.
“Butcher’s Crossing” is a bit like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” if, in order to claim their gold, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt had to kill each individual nugget first. It’s a deeply unpleasant spectacle, and the profundity of their twisted plunder isn’t lost on Will Andrews. He just doesn’t have the wherewithal, the drive or the decency to do anything about it.
He may not be the protagonist, but Cage is the centerpiece. He’s disarmingly neutral when we first meet him, bald and bearded, looking very much like a young, relaxed Sid Haig. As the film proceeds, Cage transforms into a manic and terrifying Sid Haig. It would be apt, albeit a little trite, to compare Miller to Captain Ahab, leading his men to damnation in a violent attempt to lance his festering, wounded ego. It’s a characteristically wild, wholly effective performance from an actor who excels — perhaps more so than any other — at making bizarre acting decisions seem bizarrely natural.
Gabe Polsky (“Red Penguins”) has directed a severely principled Western tale with clear, to the point of being predictable and obvious, points to make about the evils of plundering the land for selfish reasons. The reasons are not limited to Manifest Destiny, capitalism and macho pride, but those are probably the big three. Polsky and his director of photography, David Gallego (“The Last Son”), paint the American frontier as a dry, soulless landscape, bleached of all its life by a greedy invasive species. When Miller and his company do reach a place full of verdant plant life and peaceful creatures, the camera lingers on each piece that they murder for their own petty gain.
“Butcher’s Crossing” is not a subtle work of cinema. Acid Westerns usually aren’t. It’s not just an unromantic view of the American West; it actively despises what Americans did to it. As the violence sets in, the film becomes indistinguishable from a bad trip. Time loses meaning, and real events can be indistinguishable from paranoid fantasies. Polsky’s film digs into the rot in his characters’ psyches for a time but gradually climbs back out again, perhaps in an attempt to put their madness in a larger context social context. But mostly the final act of the film comes across like clunky, though well-earned, moralizing.
Polsky’s film concludes with title cards about the tragedy of the American buffalo, which were hunted to near-extinction by selfish jerks just like the ones in “Butcher’s Crossing.” The film paints the buffalo as peaceful, helpless victims, and surely they were, but it’s not really their story. It’s the story of those selfish jerks getting what’s coming to them, and that’s undeniably satisfying no matter how blunt it is. And it’s plenty blunt.
“Butcher’s Crossing” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.