The Claim

“The Claim” is a gripping, 90-minute emotional drama packed into two hours. Director Michael Winterbottom apparently is not one to rush things, though in many instances here, it would have been better if he had.

The setting is Kingdom Come, a gold rush town in 1867 California. Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) owns the town and governs it strictly but fairly. It’s a harsh, primitive place, full of whores and outlaws. It appears to be in a permanent state of winter, and not the pleasant kind you see on postcards, either.

Dillon did something dreadful a long time ago, which is shown to us in a flashback without much explanation who it’s a flashback of, or even that it IS a flashback. At any rate, his past comes back to haunt him in the form of two women: Elena Burn (Nastassja Kinski), who is dying, and her winsome young daughter Hope (Sarah Polley). He is currently seeing a throaty gal named Lucia (Milla Jovovich), who also seems to have some connection with the Burns.

Coincidental with their arrival is Mr. Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor for the railroad company whose job is to determine where the line will run. Obviously, putting it through Kingdom Come would be good business for Dillon, who does whatever he can to persuade Dalglish to see that it happens. Dalglish, meanwhile, starts to fall for Hope Burn, who says she’s from pioneer stock and can handle the rough wilderness through which Dalglish is constantly required to travel.

Dillon is not forced to reckon with his former misdeeds until well into the film. Indeed, the first hour is often frustratingly vague. Scenes are shot in snow, with characters bundled up, making it difficult to tell who is who. Relationships are not always clearly established. The plot is kept secret from the audience, when that’s normally the group of people you’d want MOST informed of what’s going on.

When the film finally gets to its point, it’s a fine one, full of wrenching drama and some depressing ideas. The question is whether it’s worth the effort to get to it. The performances are good throughout, though it’s unfortunate Wes Bentley isn’t given something meatier to handle as his follow-up to “American Beauty.” The cold isolation of the scenery and the matching detachment from the movie itself make this a hard film to warm up to.

C (; R, some harsh profanity, a lot of nudity,.)