At times the relationship between buffalo hunter Miller (a low-key Nicolas Cage) and his new apprentice, pastor’s son Will (Fred Hechinger), is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood-Sam Bottoms rapport in 1976’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” They’re not soldiers or wanted men, just a pair of frontiersmen who in 1874 head out into the harsh wilderness seeking their fortune in the form of buffalo hides. Together with a bible-thumping cook (Xander Berkeley) and an antagonistic skinner (Jeremy Bobb), the men face nature’s wrath, the threat of Indians, and their worst enemy, themselves. Fear, anxiety, and dread drive Gabe Polsky’s bleak Western.

“This will be one of the biggest hauls anyone has ever seen” promises weathered hunter Miller played by head-shaven Nicolas Cage in what could be considered a low-key performance for the actor who manages to get in at least one signature deranged moment. He’s talking about a valley where scores of bison roam free, unknown to the other hunters in the area. There’s just one catch, he needs an investor. That’s where wet-behind-the-ears Will (Hechinger) comes in.

The Ivy school dropout is looking for a “stronger purpose and more meaning in life” so when Will approaches Miller in a saloon in Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, and comments, “I would like to go on a hunt,” the young soon-to-be frontiersman is told to fork over $500 (which is all he’s got) to fund the expedition and become part of the crew as an apprentice skinner.

The story unfolds from Will’s point of view. Before he meets Miller, we see Will arrive in 1874 Butcher’s Crossing in search of McDonald (Paul Raci delivering another superb performance), a homeless man his pastor father took in many years ago. He finds the old family friend running a monopoly on buffalo hides. It seems all the hunters work for McDonald who purchases the hides for resale. After Will gives his “Remember me?” speech, he’s told by McDonald that there are no jobs available and he warns Will to stay away from the hides business, “It’ll ruin you” he tells Will and warns the young dropout, “You’ll be rotten from the inside.”

Ignoring McDonald’s warning, Will sets out with Miller and his trusty cook, an old timer named Charlie, the role played by veteran character actor Xander Berkeley who’s been in many great films and TV series including his breakout performance in 1981’s “Mommie Dearest” to roles in “Sid and Nancy,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Candyman,” and “Leaving Las Vegas” which earned an Oscar for Cage. Berkeley is one of the film’s highlights and since we are in October, if you’re looking for a spooky chiller, check out 2020’s “The Dark and the Wicked” which features Berkeley as a priest.

The cast also features character actor Jeremy Bobb (“Russian Doll’) whose range can go from clean-cut nerd to prickly redneck (with many variations in between). He plays a skeptic skinner named Fred who doesn’t believe Miller’s claim of a valley filled with countless bison, so he demands an upfront fee instead of a cut of the backend. He’s the best at what he does so Miller agrees to the contract. Fred turns out to be a thorn in the expedition’s side questioning every decision Miller makes.

Rachel Keller (“A Man Called Otto”) has a small role as a prostitute who takes a fancy to young Will as he arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, if only because he’s not dirty and gruff like most of the men in the small frontier town. Her character is used to expose Will’s inexperience in life and later as a touchy subject by instigator Fred during the maddening phase of the story.

Written by Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy, based on the 1960 novel by John Williams, “Butcher’s Crossing” resembles the dark revisionist Westerns from the 70s and 80s, from the Eastwood films of the era to the horror-tinged “The White Buffalo” starring Charles Bronson and Muscogee Nation actor Will Sampson.

Sam Bottoms was 23 when he starred opposite Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Fred Hechinger is the same age and at times there are shades of the 70s Western in the relationship between Will and Miller.

Once Gabe Polsky’s Western reaches the third act, it begins to take on a psychological horror theme as the men begin to turn on one another. Cage delivers another solid performance as a man pushed to his limits and headed toward the deep end, which has become the actor’s signature role. Here, however, Cage suppresses his tendencies to go overboard which results in a much darker performance.

Beautifully shot in Montana by cinematographer David Gallego on the Blackfeet Nation reservation adding realism to the film, the Blackfeet supervised the scenes with the Buffalo herd working as consultants, “Butcher’s Crossing” is a gritty Western filled with exceptional performances and a cautionary tale about the eradication of the American bison which all but disappeared in the 1800s.

(3 stars)

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