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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Frontier life is a hard life in this windswept Western

Illustration for article titled Frontier life is a hard life in this windswept Western

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Hateful Eight and The Revenant have us thinking about modern Westerns.


The Claim (2000)

Set among the Northern Californian mountain ranges in 1867, The Claim never allows the audience to forget the harsh winter winds that seem to permanently beset the settlers of a town, tellingly named Kingdom Come, that was born of a gold rush about 20 years prior. Director Michael Winterbottom and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler often flood the screen with snowy whites, breaking them up with the various browns and charcoals of pioneer life: the muddy boats, the flimsily erected businesses, the beards of the men, the long hair of the women, the hats. The snow-dotted mountain landscapes offer an oxymoronic sense of constriction, as this vast openness appears to almost malevolently bear down on the characters, sending them scuttling toward heavy clothes and enclosed fires for refuge.

American Westerns are often celebrations of freedom as embodied by open spaces; their narrative conflicts frequently arise from the introduction of an ancient caste system into a new, comparatively informal society. The bad guys usually represent old money, while the good guys stand for contemporary enterprise. The Claim pointedly de-romanticizes the simplicity of this fantasy, portraying frontier life as a punishing, dirty, austere existence that quickly exacerbates one’s fight-or-flight instincts, intensifying selfishness and regret. The film isn’t bluntly political, though it’s ultimately a political parable, offering a story of a society built on a false bottom of exploitation, which is soon itself exploited, or subsumed, by the blossoming United States as embodied by the approaching railroad.

The plot, a loose reworking of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor Of Casterbridge, is, in theory, a mostly traditional Western story of hardened men fighting over real estate. But one of the characters, played with extraordinarily commanding understatement by Peter Mullan, has a heartbreaking secret that explodes the genre’s propensity for loneliness. Winterbottom always returns to the weather, fashioning tableaus that are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, riffing on self-conscious Westerns such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven’s Gate while staking his own plaintive, melancholic claim on the genre. A few people are killed arbitrarily. Months pass by in moments. Winterbottom paints a portrait of an American fugue state, offering unforgettable images of nearly apocalyptic disruption: a mountain succumbing to dynamite; a horse on fire; a society burning all the way down to its snowy floor.

Availability: The Claim is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through Amazon’s digital streaming service.