Tag Archives: Gabe Polsky

Buffalo Stance

Butcher’s Crossing

by Hope Madden

Nicolas Cage has done the wild West before. Of course, with 116 acting credits, he’s done most everything before. But he’s done this recently ­– earlier this year in The Old Way, and a couple of years back in Prisoners of the Ghostland. What’s new with Butcher’s Crossing?

Cage plays Miller, a buffalo hunter. He works for himself. And he knows the stragglers with their paper thin hides around these parts ain’t nothing compared to the majestic creatures he’s seen in the thousands over in Colorado territory. If only somebody’d pony up the dough, he could put together a hunting party and bring in the biggest haul this town’s ever seen.

Well, sir, that’s just what young Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) wants to hear. He dropped out of Harvard in search of adventure, and this looks to be that.

Co-writer/director Gabe Polsky adapts John Williams’s gorgeous 1960 novel of bitter truth and American mythology. Visually striking, the film’s untamed beauty belies its meager budget. Creating an atmosphere with limited means is an instinct Polsky has shown since his impressive feature debut, Motel Life.

Miller, Will, the hyper-religious Charlie (Xander Berkeley) and the scoundrel Fred (Jeremy Bobb) head into the Rockies in search of buffalo. What they find, along with the beasts, is themselves, and that is not pretty.

Butcher’s Crossing becomes a descent into madness film. This should be where Cage excels. Madness is essentially his brand. The character isn’t written well enough to leave an impression and Polsky’s storytelling is too tight to let the veteran madman open up. Lunacy never materializes.

Hechinger, memorably naïve in News of the World, delivers well enough as innocence turned sour. Both Bobb and Paul Raci, as the bitter entrepreneur who warned the men against the hunt, add a bit of color to the story.

Butcher’s Crossing is an ugly story of greed. It’s an ugly story of America. The shots of bison carcasses make an impression – the photography throughout is impressive, but this sickening image is particularly something. Unfortunately, Polsky’s script and cast can’t quite match the visual clarity he gives the tale.

What the Puck?

Red Penguins

by Brandon Thomas

It’s been 35 years since Ivan Drago tried to break Rocky Balboa. While the fictional Italian Stallion may have prevailed against his Russian foe, the Americans at the heart of Red Penguins weren’t so lucky in their experience with our former Cold War nemesis. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the famous Red Army hockey team found itself struggling to find funding. Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Howard Baldwin thought it would be interesting to invest in the team as a way to funnel great Russian players to his own NHL club. With marketing guru Steve Warsaw acting as the man on the ground in Russia, the new American investors sought to navigate their way through an unfamiliar culture that was tasting the free market for the first time. 

Director Gabe Polsky dives right into the absurdity of these Americans thinking they could immediately saunter into the former USSR. Baldwin and Warsaw’s eccentricities certainly caught their Russian partners off-guard, but also led the two to be unequivocally naive about many things Russian. The film’s early playfulness is fun and entertaining but also feels like a warning to the audience: a warning that the American investors never fully saw. 

At times, Red Penguins feels like a documentary version of a Coen Brothers film. It’s hard not to laugh at the darkly comic situations Warsaw finds himself dealing with. Whether it be a beer- guzzling bear biting off the finger of a drunk employee, or a spy for the Russian mob that took up residence in Warsaw’s office. Anton Chigurh would feel right at home.

More than anything, Red Penguins is a cautionary tale about American overreach. Howard Baldwin wasn’t the first American businessman to foolishly believe that he could march into Russia and woo the former communists with his business savvy. Even the backing of the Disney empire couldn’t solidify a positive outcome. 

While not coming together as a definitive hockey documentary, Red Penguins offers a unique look at a transitional time in the former Soviet Union. The beer-guzzling bears are just icing on the cake. 

Don’t Expect Mints on the Pillow

The Motel Life

by Hope Madden

Emile Hirsch is a talented actor most effective when playing against that cherubic mug. As drifters, outsiders and struggling lowlifes (Into the Wild, Killer Joe, Prince Avalanche), he animates the hope inside the hopeless like few others. His open tenderness is half the reason The Motel Life is such a stingingly lovely portrait of American poverty.

Hirsch plays Frank, storyteller and brother’s keeper. That brother, forever getting the two into serious trouble, is played with heartbreaking frailty by Stephen Dorff – the second half of the film’s one-two punch.

Dorff’s Jerry Lee has gotten the rawer end of a pretty raw deal. His brother and his own ability with a pencil and drawing pad are all he has to show for his time on this planet. Missing part of his leg and drawn to trouble, Jerry Lee has given Frank a lifetime of clean-up work.

The film is at its most entertaining during story time. To keep his brother’s mind at east, Frank spins outlandish yarns where Jerry Lee can be a hero with two good legs and a voluptuous babe on his arm. Directors Alan and Gabe Polsky set these to great illustrations that bespeak the brothers’ arrested adolescence.

Based on Willy Vlautin’s acclaimed novel, the film offers an off-kilter, smoky image of hope, and the choices that kick triumph – sometimes even survival – in the teeth.

The Motel Life exists in the same basic universe as Killer Joe (but with far less insanity or humor). It’s a world belonging to the broken and haunted, where a would-be mentor has to remind you, “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a lowlife. Make decisions thinking you’re a great man. Or at least a good man.”

Who offers such advice? Kris Kristofferson – duh. Oh, one more thing he says. “And don’t be a pussy.”

The pace the Polskys set is deliberate, sometimes frustratingly so, and Hirsch is far too pretty to have led this life. (It doesn’t help that the brother who appears to be maybe 2 years his senior in flashbacks is played as an adult by an actor 12 years older than Hirsch.) But there’s an offhanded authenticity to the story of underdogs who might break free in one beautiful instant, only to fall back to what holds them in chains, whether it’s gambling, strippers, or a brother with a head full of bad wiring.