Films set in the rugged American West often explore the tension between survival and civility, order and chaos. With its elegance and brutality, "The Claim" perfectly captures that tenuous state when wildness is being tamed and much is lost in the process.
In the town of Kingdom Come, a thriving community in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, the local deity is Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), a benevolent king whose past is about to catch up with him. It's 1867 -- the Gold Rush has had its way with California and made Dillon a millionaire.
What none of his loyal subjects knows is that as a young man, their fearless leader did a cowardly thing: He literally traded his wife and baby daughter for another miner's claim, then constructed his earthly paradise on the land from which he extracted a massive vein of gold.
Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and Hope (Sarah Polley) arrive in Kingdom Come on the same fateful day as Dalglish (Wes Bentley), an engineer from the Central Pacific Railroad come to survey the area and determine where the tracks of the transcontinental railroad will be laid.
Even though the film focuses on the repercussions of individual actions, the grand sweep of this story encompasses the history of America, as a nation of immigrants -- like Lucia (Milla Jovovich), whose sad Portuguese songs evoke longing for the sunny world she can barely remember -- and a society where change is swift and devastating.
Michael Winterbottom ("Wonderland") previously directed a screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's tragedy, "Jude the Obscure," and captures the same fatalistic connection to the land and the hand of God's retribution in "The Claim," which screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce loosely based on Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge." While Winterbottom indulges in some odd artistic choices (his images seem to randomly go out of focus), he does create an intimate epic western, one which owes much to Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971).
But Altman is dreamy compared to Winterbottom, who uses the gloriously rugged mountains and nearly overwhelming snow to illustrate how puny these mortals are in the grand scheme of things, even as they carve up the landscape through their own greed.
As chilly and unrelenting as "The Claim" can be, composer Michael Nyman's gloriously beautiful score and the eclectic cast (in superbly low-key performances) provide the necessary warmth to make it through one particularly harsh winter of their -- and America's -- restless discontent.