Winterbottom stakes his 'Claim'

Thursday, December 28, 2000

Who would have thought?

That a Western could be both riveting and sexy, more focused on the power of love than the power of the gun, a story where human beings with all their petty wants, needs and flaws are mere pinpricks on a vast stormy canvas of mountain, snow and sky?

Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" is not your father's Western. It is simply exhilarating.

From the first clomp of horses' hooves on dirty snow to the final gluttonous free-for-all over gold, "The Claim" has a raw intensity that places the audience smack into California's heady gold rush years.

In a story inspired by Thomas Hardy's 1886 fable, "The Mayor of Casterbridge," Peter Mullan plays Daniel Dillon, the Western land baron with a dark secret who founded the Sierra Nevada town of Kingdom Come and rules it like a tyrant. Milla Jovovich is Lucia, Dillon's lover, who also manages the local saloon and brothel.

A trio of strangers arrives, sure to change this raucous frontier town forever: Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor sent to map out the best route for the Central Pacific Railroad, and two of Dillon's relatives, 20-year-old Hope (Sarah Polley) and her dying mother, Elena (Nastassja Kinski).

Dillon's secret is the tinder, and the interaction among the five main characters is the spark, for a tragic conflagration when the past catches up with the present.

The acting is first-rate all around, but Bentley and Jovovich really steal the show: Bentley for his brooding, steely determination to resist pressure from Dillon, Jovovich for transcending the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold cliche with her silky voice and calculating glances.

Both dominate the screen even when they are silent, and Jovovich's love scenes with Mullan are intoxicating: slow and rough at the same time.

Filmed in the mountains outside of Calgary, Alberta, "The Claim" shows why being on location is so effective. Snowstorms blow sideways � because they are real. Actors breathe heavily as they plod through deep snow, exhausted at the high altitude. Horses snort as they strain to navigate steep mountain paths.

Visually, the film almost appears shot in black and white, as the grubby, dark work clothes of the residents stand in sharp relief to the mountain's blinding snow. Deliberately out-of-focus fade-ins add to the feeling of being one step away from a whiteout, just as the pioneers were often one step away from a disaster.

And no discussion of "The Claim" would be complete without mentioning its breathtaking mountain vistas and gritty, realistic 1860s boomtown set, based on photographs from the Klondike gold rush.

"They ruled like kings," Dalglish observes of Dillon as the camera sweeps over the town, ignoring for the moment how his railroad would soon make or break those fiefdoms.

What a glorious, shameful, thrilling time it was.