Gabe Polsky’s adaptation of John Williams’ 1960 western novel, Butcher’s Crossing, falls short in capturing the prose’s compelling power and unrelenting descriptions. The story follows Will Andrews, a 23-year-old Harvard dropout, as he joins a group of buffalo hunters in the Colorado territory. As they navigate treacherous conditions and deplete the buffalo herds, Will is forced to confront the brutal reality of the American frontier. With comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s work, Williams’ novel delves into themes of remorseless violence and the harshness of nature. However, Polsky’s film fails to capture these elements and lacks the same intense impact as the original text.
He has mastered the casting well. The movie benefits from Fred Hechinger’s performance, known for his cherubic appearance in the first season of The White Lotus, as he effectively instills fear in the audience for Andrews. When he wanders into the wilderness, he appears as lost as a Smurf in Picasso’s Guernica. While Nicolas Cage has the opportunity to unleash as the bearded, bullet-headed Miller, he mostly remains subdued. One of his more eccentric moments is when he crouches in the moonlit snow, repeatedly running an open razor over his bald head, which adds to the film’s eerie atmosphere. However, this effect is diminished by the sterile studio setting.
The screen remains clean and tidy, despite any unpleasant situations that may arise. Clothes appear freshly pressed and skin looks exfoliated, even after extended periods in the outdoors. Unlike other films such as Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff, there is no indication that anyone has an unpleasant odor. While gruesome scenes are shown on camera, including a castrated hunter and abundant bison gore, director Polsky fails to make them visually impactful or the suffering portrayed anything more than superficial. The end credits, filled with data denouncing the exploitation of nature, suggest that the film has been an environmental critique all along. This further confirms that the film is unsure of its identity and target audience.