Some films don’t hit immediately. Some seem designed to make the audience unsure how they feel about it until they’ve spent a little time with their thoughts. Director Gabe Polsky’s adaptation of the 1960 John Williams novel Butcher’s Crossing is one such piece. Once it was over, there was a palpable feeling of loss from knowing that men like those portrayed really did nearly wipe out the entire buffalo population. This message itself is so impactful that analysing the film itself became a secondary concern, although that may be to its advantage.
Set over the course of a year in the early 1870s, it follows young, educated Will Andrews as he funds and joins a major hunt helmed by the erratic Miller. Nobody in the small town of Butcher’s Crossing believes that a herd as the one Miller claims to have seen could exist but, along with Andrews, hide skinner Fred and drunken, God-fearing Hodges they venture deep into Native American land to find them. The film was shot primarily on location at a Buffalo reserve, which is to be commended. If a story like this is to be told then it’s best to do it with as much respect as possible. Though the subject matter may be dark, this detail doesn’t go unnoticed and, coupled with the cinematography, really helps it to stand out from a crowd of westerns.
The film’s biggest issue is that it can often feel rushed. Miller’s arrival in town, infatuation with a local barmaid and the forming of the troop feels like it spans several days while the film’s ending feels just as abrupt. It’s the space in between, where the meat of the plot lies, that the story becomes well-paced and dives into the degenerating minds of the group. There are hasty edits in here too but they feel deliberate and designed to convey the deteriorating mental states of these men rather than to hurry the plot along. The performances do a great job at reflecting this too, with Cage bringing a more subdued and uneasy among of that well-renowned Cage-ness, although the stand-out is Fred Hechinger who always feels one buffalo kill away from self destruction.