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IN SHORT: One of the Best of the Year. [Rated R for sexuality, and some language and violence. 120 minutes]
There are certain images that come to mind when you speak of film genres. "Period
Piece" brings to mind lost times with women in long dresses (and, depending
on how far back you go, men in almost the same). "Western" always brings
up visions of gunfights on dusty streets. Forget about all of that when you sit
down for The Claim, in which the big showdown comes without a shot being
fired in a town blanketed by winter snows. This is not a cowboy story. It is a
story of everything else that went on in the West in the middle to late nineteenth
Century. It is a story of railroads and gold and land and power and how worthless
all of that is if it costs you what most people hold dear.
The Claim reunites a family after a twenty year separation. We won't tell you how and why of the separation other than to say it would be an emotional whopper under any circumstance. Under director Michael Winterbottom's hands, the "reunion," such as it is, is underplayed. That is greatly appreciated since it balances heavy duty emotional stuff that lies waiting in the wings.
There is gold in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, in California. The adventurers and the immigrants and the poor climbed into the mountains of California, looking for the big score. The Claim is not a story of men with pans in a river. It is a story of veins of ore buried under tons of mountain; of weather so fierce that only a fiercer lust for riches could keep you from freezing to death. Daniel Dillon ( Peter Mullan) came to the mountains in the Winter of '48 with a wife and kid in tow, driven by that lust. Where he mined, there was no gold. Deep into the winter, deeper in the snow of the Sierra Nevadas the family came upon a ragged tent on the side of the mountain. Inside the tent was the devil -- not a literal demon with horns -- but a man with a valid Claim, willing to make a deal. One world is lost to Dillon forever. Another opens wide.
Twenty years later, the consequences of that day come back to wreak vengeance.
In 1867, the country is booming. Two companies are building the Trans-Continental railroad, which will bring expansion and great wealth to the towns along its route. For those in the wrong place, the railroad will bring destruction and misery far worse than the winter blizzards that sealed off these towns from what passed for nineteenth century civilization. Everybody knows this. When a surveying engineer named Daglish ( Wes Bentley) comes to call, he is both feted and feared. Bribes are offered and threats are veiled. The results of his survey will determine if the railroad will come to the town of Kingdom Come. If not, the name is apt.
Kingdom Come is Daniel Dillon's private kingdom. No guns are allowed in the town because that's the way he wants it. His rule is iron. His preferred method of punishment is the whip and, if you cheat or steal from a compatriot miner, the penalty is worse than death. It is banishment which, considering the expectations of the time, truly is the proverbial "fate worse than..." Every evening, when the prospectors take their "entertainment" it's in his bar or in the brothel run by Lucia ( Milla Jovovich), who shares his bed. Arriving with Daglish are two ladies from Boston, Elena Byrne ( Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley). The town assumes they are working girls but they hole up in the hotel, where Hope cares for her ailing mom. When Dillon takes notice of Hope, Lucia doesn't like it. When Daglish takes notice of Lucia, well . . .
That's all you need to know, and not even close to what unravels in the lives of these people. True, you'll get the big slam bang ending you want in a Western, but it's not the traditional showdown. Winterbottom's film is a great drama and it's stacked with great, subtle performances. Peter Mullan, who we remember from My Name Is Joe, gets to play one of those great characters who is ice on the outside and torrential fire on the inside. Jovovich gets to play for revenge and everyone else properly supports the pair as The Claim builds to its final explosive resolution.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Claim, he would have paid...
Honestly? We liked The Claim when we first saw it. We liked it more as we slogged through every other disappointing Oscar wannabee. Other critics that we're friendly with think we're out of our mind, but we think The Claim is one of the best movies we've seen this year.
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