For this installment of my TIFF Dispatch, we take a look at two movies featuring some of the most intriguing lead actors working in the industry today. Nicholas Cage‘s repertoir speaks for itself and in his late career he has resurged as a billable star on personality and charisma. Vicky Krieps is one of the most talented actresses to emerge in Hollywood cinema in recent years but having a star vehicle for her hasn’t happened in the American industry. Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer rectifies this by casting her as a monarch with a biting and playful personality.
Butcher’s Crossing (Gabe Polsky)
The novelty of “crazy ol’ Nicholas Cage” has hit a peak over the past few years, especially in the wake of Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, which hit everyone like an electric current. But Gabe Polsky’s latest film Butcher’s Crossing sees Cage taking on more of a brooding cowboy character like Val Kilmer’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993), directed by Panos Cosmatos‘s father George P. Cosmatos. It’s also a character reminiscent of Cage’s turn as Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Here, Cage trades in an ambulance for a horse, and instead of experiencing delirium in the midst of dead humans, he’s feeling it in the midst of dead buffalo. His traveling partner is a young man and eager hunter named Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger, who plays the actual lead in the film). Even though many warn him of the dangers, he sees himself fit for the journey.
John Edward Williams’ source novel is sort of an airier version of Blood Meridian, drawing the psychological descent of a band of killers with a more stomachable arc. Polsky still guides this descent into darkness with surreal dream sequences and a lot of footage of buffalo killing, though it’s filmed weirdly nonchalantly. We’re not getting the stomach-churning carnage of the kangaroo hunt in Wake in Fright (1974) here. Cage is aptly intense in his role but surprisingly overshadowed in this by Jeremy Bobb who gives a fantastic, surly, and biting performance, with a deep sinister growl of a voice, as an animal skinner. His line delivery is a perfect match for the film’s brooding and surreal elements. Cage, however, is still in his element and as the lead buffalo hunter who gets entranced by the act of killing, his demise into obsession is well-rendered – more in line with his recent performance in Pig (2020) than the haywire Mandy (2019).
At the same time, Butcher’s Crossing feels like an incomplete film. It features a massive buffalo hunt that descends into carnage, but it also seems to happen rather in the blink of an eye. A lot of sparse elements in the movie, footage of the hills, buffalo on the ground, and dream sequences, seem repetitive and cut into the narrative flow of the movie. This isn’t a common complaint by me because I love artistic flourishes over base-line narrative. But it doesn’t feel organic in this sense. Polsky’s film is clearly running up the clock in a way that makes me feel like there just wasn’t enough material to warrant a full-feature film (which shouldn’t be the case because it’s based on a novel). It also seems to not really signify a motive until the end when we get clips of famous buffalo hunts from the 1800s and notes on how the buffalo population was severely threatened by white settlers on Native lands. I feel like instead of footnotes these are elements that could be filmed and actually make the movie more whole than it is.
Corsage (Marie Kreutzer)
Vicky Krieps, whose Hollywood repertoire so far has seen her paired as a warm dichotomous contrast to cold or troubled men in Phantom Thread (2017) and The Survivor (2021), gets that yet again in the Austrian film Corsage but this time she’s the center of the script. Playing the 19th-century Austrian monarch Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” Amalie Eugenie, Krieps is perfect in the role of someone who exhibits strange flights of fancy, spontaneous acts of free expression, and a quiet and warm aura toward the people around her. It’s the kind of role she can sink her teeth into, though ironically her character barely eats anything on screen. Director Marie Kreutzer avoids the trappings of the “star vehicle” by adding her own eccentric flairs to the movie that makes it unique if not necessarily fully engaging.
If you are one of the people who gets annoyed by historical films that use modern dialogue and flairs, well, this movie does those things on purpose. Queen Sisi gives people the middle finger and dances to new-age music. Kreutzer also incorporates seemingly random objects of modern society – like a tractor – in the 19th-century setting. The effect is more subtle and more a form of pure aestheticism than socio-politics like in Alex Cox’s Walker (1987) or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)(a movie that Kreutzer said she doesn’t like very much). There’s an edgy verve to the proceedings of the film that extend monarchy and people’s fascination for it into a semi-modern context. It’s an exercise in myth (though informed by historically accurate behavioral quirks) that gives the movie the feel of a modern fable.
Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann has some visually stunning sequences, especially the scenes where Sisi is swimming along with her male romantic interest George Middleton (Colin Morgan). It’s a birds-eye shot at night where they are illuminated figures in a pitch-black water body. The lighting is entrancing and it feels like two souls in a void prancing around. A lot of modernist touches like this make the mise-en-scene visually alluring at points, but this isn’t a movie that has much more on its mind than giving us a glimpse of Sisi’s weird idiosyncracies as a monarch. If this type of soft and breezy character study is your thing, then you’ll enjoy the fact that Kreutzer’s movie is a quiet leisure watch.
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