It's easy to forget that our modern, bloated society hasn't always had it so good. There was a time when satellite television didn't exist; when automobiles weren't around to whisk would-be ramblers away to another city any time they developed itchy feet; when people were forced to deal with rather than run away from their problems. And in 19th century California, the residents of a small mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have no shortage of unfleeable problems. Their village, dubbed Kingdom Come, has been governed by inertia since the end of the Gold Rush. Little more than a row of dilapidated shops and boarded-up buildings, the only thing that makes life in Kingdom Come bearable is the thought that it can't possibly continue this way. Enter into the town Donald Dalglish (a bearded Wes Bentley, looking so much like Chasing Amy's Jason Lee that it's almost creepy), the chief engineer of the Pacific Railroad Survey Party. Dalglish and his crew are on a scouting mission, searching for suitable locales through which to route the burgeoning continental railroad. The townsfolk surmise, quite correctly, that this could be the solution to their crippling poverty, and set out to convince Dalglish that their ramshackle hamlet is the right place for him to build a new train station. Dalglish, quite accustomed to this reaction, has enough respect for his job to eschew the many financial bribes he's offered. But he's not so devoted to protocol that he refuses the carnal affections offered by Lucia (Milla Jovovich), the madame who oversees Kingdom Come's premiere brothel (the closest thing the town has to a recreational center, judging from the amount of time everyone spends there). Lucia, however, is also the frequent companion of Mr. Dillon (Peter Mullan), the town's founder, a fact which serves to complicate the railroad negotiations. Outwardly, Mr. Dillon projects all the signs of the proverbial Man Who Has Everything. After a gold strike twenty years earlier made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, Dillon earned the undying respect and admiration of his people by treating them well. But there's a skeleton in Dillon's closet, a secret that's haunted him for over two decades. Even as his personal prosperity has soared, the cancerous guilt he feels over a long-ago act of betrayal has gnawed away at him until there's nothing left but an empty shell of a man; his confidence and bravado is just a facade maintained for the benefit of the townsfolk. It's important to understand that Michael Winterbottom's The Claim is not a film about the building of the Great Railroad, but about its promise. Although Dalglish is ostensibly the main character, this is really Dillon's story, and an alternately exalting and heartbreaking one it is, particularly in the way Dillon (perhaps foolishly) tries to atone for his sins nearly two decades after the fact. Just as Dalglish's railroad symbolizes freedom from the chains of poverty for the townsfolk, Dillon himself seeks escape from his own burden and longs for the one thing his money can not buy: absolution. And although things become even more complicated with the arrival in town of two ghosts from Dillon's past, he steadfastly clings to his dreams of forgiveness. Despite his phenomenal wealth, his prayers are, in the end, all he has. Based on Thomas Hardy's eloquent 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Claim oozes visual grace from every pore; on certain occasions, the startlingly beautiful photography by cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler almost drowns the story in sheer visual spectacle. The film also boasts a terrific ensemble performance from the cast, who convey as much of the tale with innocuous gestures and subtle body language as with words. But visual grace and good supporting performances aren't the only criteria for judging cinema, and The Claim has some problems. To start with, the film is extraordinarily slow and uninvolving, opting to revel in the dark sides of its characters despite their constant attempts to improve themselves and their town. The character of Dalglish, ostensibly our protagonist, never really comes across as anything more than a plot point despite the heroic efforts of American Beauty's Wes Bentley, who does his best with a severely underwritten part. And although the film's title takes on a double (and arguably triple) meaning towards the conclusion, many major facets of the story remain a mystery. Like The Sixth Sense, this is probably a movie you'll want (and perhaps need) to watch more than once before everything makes sense. MGM's DVD presentation of The Claim, regrettably, does little to provide illumination. Although optional French and Spanish subtitles are included, no English subtitles are on board, which is a pity, since much of Dalglish's rapid-fire Scottish-tinged dialogue is remarkably difficult to discern. Special features are virtually non-existent as well, apart from the movie's theatrical trailer. The Claim is presented in a colorful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), although slight pixilation can be noted during many of the darker scenes. English, French and Spanish audio tracks are included. Keep-case.
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