The Denver Post
DENVER — When John Williams penned the gritty, Colorado-set novel “Butcher’s Crossing” in 1960, he faced a herd of Western writers stampeding in the other direction.
Seminal novelists of the genre such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour had already idealized the American frontier in hundreds of bestselling books and stories. But Williams, a University of Denver professor for 30 years, took a darker view of U.S. expansion, one that dissected the heroic myths of archetypal cowboys, ranch hands and outlaws.
Director Gabe Polsky, who fought for more than a decade to turn “Butcher’s Crossing” into a movie, said he “never really connected with the genre.”
“Never. I tried to watch (Westerns) a little bit and just kind of disconnected because it was about searching for the Indians and bank robberies and revenge and all of that.”
In 2022, Polsky’s cinematic version, which stars Nicholas Cage, debuted on the film festival circuit, and is now in theaters.
As a novel, the coming-of-age story was arguably the first Western to subvert the genre’s morally certain, decades-old formulas. Williams preceded giants of the revisionist and anti-Western such as Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”) and Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”), although his influence is only lately appreciated by critics and readers.
Williams, who also wrote 1965’s literary masterpiece “Stoner,” invests in the emotional lives of his characters as “Butcher’s Crossing” depicts a thrilling, stomach-churning buffalo hunt. Harvard dropout — and naive Ralph Waldo Emerson devotee — William Andrews trades Boston for the Kansas frontier in an effort to expand his horizons. There he joins buffalo hunter Miller (just one name), whose epic, money-making quest involves finding and skinning a legendary herd of Colorado buffalo to secure his biggest payout yet.
Like the book, the film — which stars Fred Hechinger (“The White Lotus”) as Andrews, and a fearsome Cage as Miller — is set in the early 1870s when Colorado was still a territory riven by murderous land grabs and precious-metal rushes.
“They’re hunting buffalo, but they’re also going out on this crazy sort of ‘Moby Dick’ search,” Polsky said of the movie, which was shot in the Blackfoot Nation in northwest Montana due to the size and availability of the tribe’s buffalo herd.
In addition to Moby Dick, reviews have likened it to “Apocalypse Now” as it traces Miller’s mental unraveling on the cursed trek to claim and offload more buffalo hides than anyone actually wanted. “It’s an American tragedy, almost like ‘Death of a Salesman’ in a way,” Polsky said.
The movie hit theaters on Oct. 20, less than a week after the release of the new Ken Burns documentary, “The American Buffalo.” They cover roughly the time period in U.S. history, when the American bison population plummeted from about 60 million in 1860 to fewer than 300 in the span of just 20 years, Polsky said. The movie doesn’t shy from the horror, eschewing special effects and showing real animal skinning onscreen.
“It was shot on Blackfeet land near Glacier National Park, and we promised we’d show them the movie before it came out,” said Polsky, whose team made good on the promise. “To do it with them really made a lot of sense because of their history with the animal and how important the animal is to them. We did a lot of ceremony with them before we shot, and they gave us lessons on skinning. Everything was real.”
Blackfeet representatives “loved the movie and were profusely thankful and talked a lot about it,” added Polsky, who pointed out that there are no Indigenous people on screen. “They understood right away you don’t need Native Americans to have these cliched scenes in there with them. It says everything you need to say with what the hunters did. The (Indigenous people) are lurking. They’re watching. These hunters are self-destructive. Nature will correct you.”
Like Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a historically based feature about the racist savagery and murder of Indigenous people (in this case, 1920s Osage people whose land contained oil), it’s part of a reexamination of the evil wrought by ambitious men.
Despite its Montana shooting location, Polsky said the film remains rooted in Colorado.
“Montana had better (production) incentives, but the story is based here and I wrote it here,” he said. “I rented an apartment and mainly wrote the film at the Basalt Library. It was the first draft, so I took the book and started page by page trying to mold it into something cinematic. The novel has so much detail.”
Securing Cage to star afforded it Hollywood appeal. Polsky and his brother/business partner Alan first met Cage while producing 2009’s wild “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” which starred Cage as an amoral police officer with severe substance use disorders.
“I don’t know many A-list people on a first-name basis, but (Cage) was the first guy I thought of,” Polsky said. “He’s got that mysterious intensity, and believe me, on set he was even more intense. No one wanted to get near him. I don’t want to say he was a dark force, but he had electricity going through him at all times and everyone was just like ‘Ah! I don’t want to get shot.’”
Cage’s version of Method acting paid off in his performance, but he was also a consummate professional whose deep knowledge of the script and creative ideas during filming helped Polsky see it in a different way.
“He actually brought that buffalo coat he’s wearing on screen,” Polsky said. “He got it online. The glasses, the shaving-his-head thing — those were his ideas, too. He understands that the drive and ambition that created this country were also very destructive. It’s not a happy story all the time, and these real-life guys were individual forces of nature themselves.”