Somber Gold Rush melodrama gets bogged down in unanswered questions, unexplored motives
It's clear from the almost corporeal sense of time and place achieved in "The Claim," a tightly-wound melodrama set during the twilight of the Gold Rush, that director Michael Winterbottom made a very great effort to bring a broad vision to the screen.
The beautifully photographed High Sierra township of Kingdom Come, where the film is set, stirs with a sense of hardship and rugged lives. It feels entrenched against the harsh wintry elements that besiege it. It feels civilized but dangerous. It's a place for people who sold their souls to thrive, or maybe just to survive.
Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) runs this town -- scratch that, he owns it. But it came at a greedy price that has haunted him for 18 years. Trekking west as a young '49er, Dillon swapped his wife and baby daughter to a miner in exchange for his claim -- a claim that made him the rich and powerful baron.
But that may be about to change with the arrival of a survey team for the Central Pacific Railroad. Headed by the incorruptible Mr. Dalglish (a scruffy Wes Bentley), this scouting party could take away Dillon's prosperity by choosing to route the railroad through a nearby valley instead of through the town.
And that's not all. Arriving with the survey party are a dying woman (Nastassja Kinski) and her 18-year-old daughter Hope (Sarah Polley), the ghosts of Dillon's shameful past.
What a fine set-up for dramatic tension in this lose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge." The emotions run high, the characters have a vigor and ardency (as one would need to live in this frontier world) and there are livelihoods and hearts at stake.
But while Winterbottom has a firm grip on the movie's atmosphere, his hold on motivations and a myriad of plot details is tenuous at best.
The first of many points of confusion comes in a flashback of the dubious deal made between Dillon and the miner in his ramshackle cabin during a terrible snowstorm. What the miner wants with a the relative burden of a woman and child -- instead of the riches of a possible gold strike -- is not at all clear. Even less clear is who's who in this scene, since the actor playing the young miner looks more like Mullan than the actor playing the young Dillon.
Back in the film's present, one thing we do understand is why Dillon, a menacing but God-fearing man, abandons Lucia (Milla Jovovich), his saloon girl mistress, to remarry his once-discarded bride. He's angling for the redemption of his soul. But why he offers no explanation to his lover and his townspeople is anybody's guess. Can you blame Hope for being suspicious, since she has no idea this man is her father? (Why he doesn't want her to know is another point of contentious ambiguity.)
Dillon moves his family into an elegant new house he apparently had sitting around -- fully furnished but uninhabited -- just in case something like this happened. Together he and Hope care for her mother in her dying days.
Meanwhile, Hope and Dalglish begin a genteel courtship, which is another source of confusion. Bentley ("American Beauty") seems to fully inhabit the character of Dalglish, but he doesn't seem to want to share the man's soul with the viewer. He's so distant we haven't a clue why he, out of the blue, sleeps with Lucia if he's supposed to be so very much in love with Hope.
The usually understated but intense Polley ("Go," "The Sweet Hereafter") is similarly fleshy but vague. Mullan ("Miss Julie") gives the film's strongest, most even performance, but in the end he's the hardest character of all to understand.
With Dalglish deciding to route the railroad away from the town, "The Claim" nosedives toward an ironically tragic end for Dillon. The business-savvy and vengeful Lucia takes the initiative to build a new whistle stop berg in the valley, turning Kingdom Come into a ghost town in a matter of hours.
Again it's hard not to ask a million questions. Why would the entire population go live in tents in the dead of winter to start construction at the drop of a hat when it will be months -- if not seasons -- before tracks are laid locally? Even more puzzling, why doesn't Dillon pull up stakes and become a major player in the new town too?
Winterbottom's failure to address such issues and the thinking behind them are at the heart of why "The Claim" falters so badly in spite of its exemplary crafting and epic sweep. If we're not allowed to understand these people, how can we be expected to care how things turn out for them?