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Butcher’s Crossing review: Nicolas Cage is unhinged in new Western

Butcher’s Crossing review (TIFF): Nic Cage is unrecognisable in this new take on the western but it unfortunately fails to live up to its potential

Our Verdict

A solid western that continues the strong streak Cage is having in his career at the moment that wastes its potential.

Nicolas Cage has arrived at a fascinating stage in his career – self-reflective (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent) and contemplative (Pig). He is also now an elder statesman in a mentorship role to rising stars.

In the case of the new western Butcher’s Crossing – the Willard to his Colonel Kurtz is Fred Hechinger. Hechinger only broke through as recently as 2018 with Eighth Grade and Vox Lux. He has had something of a meteoric rise since then, with prestigious TV series like The Underground Railroad, Pam & Tommy, and The White Lotus. He also appeared in another western (alongside Tom Hanks) – The News of the World – and has the Sony Marvel movie Kraven the Hunter coming up.

Hechinger plays young Will, who has had enough of being coddled at Harvard and wants to find adventure out West. Cage’s Miller immediately spots an opportunity – here is a rich, naive kid who can put up the funds for the big hunt that Miller has wanted to do for years.

Buffalo numbers are rapidly dwindling in the local area, but Miller knows a place in the mountains where there’s an enormous herd hidden away, ripe for the taking. No one believes the seeming crackpot Miller – a Cage unlike we’ve seen him before – with an entirely bald head that he maintains with a cut-throat razor, a pipe, and a fur coat that would make Warren Beatty’s McCabe jealous.

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Miller enlists the elderly God-fearing alcoholic Charlie (Xander Berkeley) and the mercenary Fred (Jeremy Bobb), a skinner for hire who just wants his payday. The movie is divided into sections and takes place across three seasons (which has a detrimental effect on the pacing) – by the time they leave, it’s already Autumn. They find Miller’s herd-of-legend, and Miller single-handedly begins a killing frenzy.

Vegetarians be warned that there are relentless scenes of the skinning and butchering of the animals. Director Gabe Polsky seems to want to have some kind of message here about the millions of bison which once roamed the American plains being hunted to the brink of extinction within a couple of decades.

However, until we get some information on the screen at the end, this theme is not particularly explored or made clear. By focusing on this one man, who admittedly can kill thousands, this does not give enough of a sense of the scale of the vast industry that grew up around hunting buffalo. Not including any indigenous characters is also a choice that conflicts with the message displayed on the screen at the end.

The direction and technical elements – including David Gallego’s cinematography of the stunning landscape and Leo Birenberg’s abrasive, strained and scratchy score – are the strongest elements. Some of the shots (which deserve to be seen on a big screen, if you have the chance) are jaw-droppingly beautiful – sun streaming through trees, wide vistas of plains, birds flocking across the water, and many more.

Butcher's Crossing review

There are other shots where the digital camera’s limitations (and potentially budget restrictions) are noticeable, however. The writing is less impressive than the direction, despite Butcher’s Crossing being based on a celebrated novel. Several threats are introduced that go absolutely nowhere – a potentially intriguing horror element could have been a path that the movie went down.

During the journey, the men find a corpse arranged almost ritually as a warning from a local Indian tribe. JD McDonald (Paul Raci), the local kingpin, who has teams of hunters go out for him, is another potential spanner in the works for Miller. However, none of these threads are ever really teased out, and the whole film feels largely low-stakes and conflict-free.

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The strongest section is Winter – when the four men find themselves stranded due to Miller’s hubris. They should have left with the thousands of hides they already have, but he keeps pushing for more than they can possibly carry. They get snowed in for what is apparently 6-8 months, and this could have had the potential to properly spiral into Lord of the Flies style madness.

Miller begins to look more and more like a bison – covering himself in layers of furs, hunched over, munching on raw bison offal which dangles from his mouth and menacingly scraping his head with his razor. Tensions do arise – particularly between Charlie and Will – but a greater sense that the men have been there for months, growing increasingly sick of each other – would have been better here.

Instead, we fairly swiftly move on to Spring and the journey home. Some of the characters do reveal themselves to be different to what we had expected from the start. But the young Will goes through a fairly predictable loss of innocence and a sense of regret regarding the journey. While Miller does become gradually more villainous, Cage is never released from the leash in ways we’ve seen him before in the likes of Face/Off or as recently as Mandy.

This is a solidly middle-of-the-road performance from him, which is good to see. He doesn’t always have to be the butt of the joke or be as restrained and contained as he was in Pig. Cage demonstrates here that he can live within the greys and doesn’t always have to be at one extreme or the other. Hopefully, we can continue to see a range of directors taking a chance on him for a variety of kinds of roles in different genres.

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Because the events of the movie are ultimately an exercise in futility (without giving too much away), and Polsky seems to be trying to say something about man’s attempts to tame, control, corral and exploit nature are ultimately futile – the film itself kind of feels futile too. It’s easy to come away feeling, “well, what was all of that for?”

It definitely feels as though dispensing with the Autumn and Spring sections and focusing purely on the men trapped together for a long Winter would have been better. This would have allowed deeper interrogation of the characters and themes instead of it largely feeling surface-level.

Ultimately, this is a solid western and certainly continues the strong streak that Cage is having in his career at the moment. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of wasted potentials, with some interesting ideas introduced that remain unexplored.