Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" ranked as my number 5 film of the year in 2001.
With the anticipation of British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's latest cinematic excursion brewing in the air ("The Killer Inside Me"), I went back and visited "The Claim", his intimately epic western from 2001 that stands as his most beautifully realized film to date. Starring Peter Mullan as a land baron who founded the town of Kingdom Come high in the snow-covered Sierra Navadas, "The Claim" follows his intersection with two groups of people who arrive in his town at the same time: a group of railroad surveyors, led by a stellar Wes Bentley, and an ailing woman (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley). There's a history between the two women and Mullan that's explored in oblique flashbacks, fleshing out Mullan's character as an absolute beast of a man, attempting to reconcile the decisions he made in the past while holding out for real world connection in the construction of the railroad. In typical Winterbottom fashion, "The Claim" is a kaleidoscopic character piece that swirls around Michael Nyman's melodic score as the railroad men lounge in the local whorehouse (led by a great Milla Jovovich), fall in love with the whores, and carry out their dangerous mission in one spectacular sequence that shows the brutal result of nitroglycerin taking a dip across a bumpy river.
In its simplest form, "The Claim" is a film of heartfelt connections against a bitter landscape. Not since Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" has the stark delineation of the warm interior been juxtaposed against the brutally white snow covered exterior. Winterbottom and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler illuminate the interior shots with deep hues of gold and green, while action outside is constantly plagued by howling winds, blowing snow and a deep feeling of bone chilling coldness. Likewise, the human drama in "The Claim" is also drawn in opposing factions. Bentley, not a popular figure in town if he decides the railroad should be built away from town, falls in love with Sarah Polley's character... and part of the story lies in her name, Hope. Mullan's history with Nastassja Kinski pit his former lover against current girlfriend, and in the end, Winterbottom's vision is unapologetically bitter and destructive. Young love may proliferate, but for Mullan, a man who sold his soul for riches, ends up as one of the more tragic figures in Winterbottom's oeurve.
I would count Winterbottom as one of my ten favorite directors working today. I'll never forget walking into a screening of "Welcome To Sarajevo" in the mid 90's and emerging stunned. It happened again three years later with "Wonderland", so by the time "The Claim" was released in early 2001, I was a bit more prepared. That the film blew me away as much as it did speaks to the poetic manner in which Winterbottom infused a seemingly standard western with such grace and fragility between its characters. Even the cliched secondary characters, such as the hooker played by Winterbottom regular Shirley Henderson, blazed across the screen with believability. And that final moment (seen in the clip below), as a hoard of greedy men and women rush the bank for riches, is an ironic spin on the overriding theme of the movie... a grand allegory for an America built on complex terms of sacrifice and eventually destroyed by greed and personal gratification.