The Claim (review)

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Good as Gold

The Gold Rush that sparked the settling of the far West of America was such a dramatic event that it’s surprising that more movies haven’t been set against it. Most who sought their fortune failed to find it, after having traveled thousands of miles for the search. And those who did strike it rich may have seen such a happy event transpire in ways other than they imagined it would.

Such is the story of The Claim. Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge and transfered to the screen by the bleak eye of director Michael Winterbottom, this is a stark and sometimes quietly shocking story of dreams and hopes lost and regained, of the neverending cycle of greed that drives humanity, and the implacable land that molds the very people who wish to mold it.
There’s a lusty realism to The Claim that becomes obvious from the outset: the crowded saloon is where everyone in the tiny frontier town of Kingdom Come comes to huddle for warmth. While snows fall steadily and winds howl incessantly outside, in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, surveyors, come to bring the railroad through the town, jostle with aging goldrushers, ladies of the evening, and other outcasts from proper society, in such earthy close quarters that you can practically smell the sweat and the tobacco and the burning candle wax. It’s almost a despair that draws these people together — there’s a whole lot of empty wilderness all around Kingdom Come, and its inhabitants cling to one another to ward off the desolate remoteness.

The year is 1867, and though the gold rush is over, its aftereffects remain. Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan: Fairy Tale: A True Story, Trainspotting) struck it big, and he built Kingdom Come — now, he is the town’s benevolent dictator, meting out punishments that seem cruel to us today, for crimes that seem petty, though he is, another character reminds us, rather lenient on what is a harsh offense. That it looks to us as if he deals in rough justice and yet doesn’t makes me wonder whether what he did two decades earlier was less abhorrent than it also seems to a modern eye: He traded his wife and infant daughter to a goldrusher who hadn’t seen a woman in months for a claim to a gold mine.

Now, his wife, Elena (Nastassja Kinski) has come to Kingdom Come, with daughter Hope (Sarah Polley: Go, The Sweet Hereafter) in tow — and Hope has no idea that the man who raised her and is now dead was not her father. Arriving with their coach is Donald Dalglish (Wes Bentley: American Beauty), the chief engineer for the Central Pacific Railroad survey, there to determine whether the railroad will bring civilization and an enduring prosperity to the town, one that will not have to rely on Dillon’s vault full of gold. So Dillon is assailed from all sides, it seems — by the freshening of haunted guilt over his past deed, and by a freshening greed that wants to influence Dalglish’s decision on the route of the railroad in any way necessary.

This a film of startling imagery: seemingly simple scenes of blizzardy mountains take on the severity of an alien landscape; a round house is pulled by teams of horses and men down a snow-packed hillside, one of the most surprisingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen onscreen; even closeups of pale women, their un-made-up faces aglow with nothing but candlelight, look like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

But the cold beauty of The Claim grows out of the characters as well. Triangles spring up among them and resolve themselves in unlikely ways — Dillon’s ladyfriend, Lucia (Milla Jovovich: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element), who shares his bed and runs his saloon for him, misunderstands the affection and interest he displays in Hope; Dalglish divides himself, practically so, between the saloon girls, who have one kind of attention to offer him, and Hope, who has another. Polley’s simple sincerity and Bentley’s rational matter-of-factness, Mullan’s impulsive expressiveness and Jovovich fierce passion… they set icy fire to a story of love, guilt, greed, and redemption that is, in the end, extraordinary, and extraordinarily moving.

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