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The Claim


The Claim

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"It was as if those mountains had been designed to divide California permanently from the remainder of the country," writes Stephen Ambrose of the Sierra Nevada range in Nothing Like It In The World, his recent history of the Transcontinental Railroad. As a surveyor for the Central Pacific line in Michael Winterbottom's sumptuously mounted and richly textured anti-Western The Claim, Wes Bentley finds this resistance in more than just the Sierras' formidable peaks and rugged, snowy terrain. His quiet arrival in the rarefied air of Kingdom Come—a town founded on the freewheeling spirit and corrupted values of the Gold Rush—doesn't hint at the momentous changes to come, as the Wild West is abruptly and unceremoniously ushered out of existence. Loosely based on Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor Of Casterbridge, The Claim seems closer in spirit to Robert Altman's 1971 classic McCabe And Mrs. Miller, evoking the same mournful feeling of the new America pressing insistently at the borders. As the coming of the railroad triggers the Old West's death throes, the mesmerizing Peter Mullan is the resident walking casualty, a broken man who struck it rich 20 years earlier by trading his wife and baby daughter for the claim to a gold mine. Now the founder and de facto ruler of Kingdom Come, Mullan is haunted by his past when wife Nastassja Kinski, dying of an untreatable illness, arrives to secure an inheritance for daughter Sarah Polley, who doesn't know his true identity. Their uneasy reunion is complicated by his spurned lover, a saloon singer played by Milla Jovovich, and Bentley's increasingly powerful sway over the fortunes of his town and its women, including Polley. Though the story contains all the combustible elements of an old-fashioned melodrama, Winterbottom internalizes the conflicts to such an extent that they don't really register until the final act, which gathers the force of Shakespearean tragedy. An epic pared down to two hours, The Claim nearly buckles under the weight of its ambitions, juggling more themes and subplots than it could possibly have time to develop. Despite fine work from the entire cast, Mullan's heartbreaking performance is the only one that fully registers, but it's the only one that needs to, because as a man too late for redemption, he embodies the Old West's hollowed-out spirit. Dramatically nuanced and historically credible, The Claim studies a key transition in American life and, in a stunning final shot, reveals how the past has left its indelible mark.