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Cold rush 

Greed conquers all in The Claim

A promising director whose work has often flirted with, but never quite achieved, greatness, British director Michael Winterbottom's oeuvre (Jude, Wonderland) has suggested the vision of an idealist mesmerized by human frailty. In his latest, The Claim, Winterbottom returns, yet again, to the inevitable tragedy of human existence, with a nod to Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and no small debt to Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

In fact, the entire look and feel of The Claim, set in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California during the 1860s, often feels like a revisit to Altman's classic, brooding revisionist Western. The same golden lamplight and steamy claustrophobia of interior spaces, the same half-finished, lawless Western town draped in a winter shroud, the same hard-to-read cryptic characters that populated Altman's frontier return in Winterbottom's vision.

Rough-around-the-edges Scottish actor Peter Mullan plays Daniel Dillon, the lord and master of the gold rush town Kingdom Come, founded decades ago on an unsavory bargain he struck with a desperate prospector. In flashback we get snatches of Dillon's moral crime, which places his empire on shaky ground. An immigrant from Dublin with a Polish wife and newborn girl trudging through the harsh landscape under a run of bad luck, Dillon and family come to rest in the shelter of a lonely prospector's cabin. There Dillon strikes an unpleasant deal, offering his wife and daughter to the prospector in exchange for the deed to his land. But the prospector's bitter insight -- that all his search for fortune has never made him happy -- inevitably comes back to haunt Dillon, who attains a great fortune but at a miserable price.

Once this troubling backstory is established, Winterbottom would have been wise to have left well enough alone. But he keeps returning to that seminal, life-altering moment, as if stating it twice, three times, will truly drive home once and for all the horror of what Dillon has done and how bitterly it nags at his conscience. When long-abandoned wife Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and her poorly named daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley), show up in Kingdom Come, Dillon is forced to reckon with the brutal foundation of his personal fortune.

One of the principal annoyances in The Claim is how vacant and lifeless its characters are, as if emotionally numbed by proximity to so much wintry weather. Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce seem determined to establish realism by suggesting the hardscrabble pioneer life could only produce these blank, minimalist people who lack both the inner life of literary characters and the outward, articulate gestures of movie ones. The most dramatic performance is undoubtedly Kinski's, largely because she's required to hack up gobs of her lungs in the throes of tuberculosis to remind Dillon of how his crime has eaten away at least one of them. In this way, Elena seems more like a literary device than a woman.

While Dillon contends with the return of his abandoned family, the stage coach arrives, bringing to town railroad workers, including a handsome surveyor named Dalglish (Wes Bentley), who develops a soft spot for Hope. But Dalglish also has a cold head for business, subjugating everything to a single-minded motto that the railroad must get through.

Love is in the air in The Claim, but it can barely withstand the freezing temperatures. The foundation of Winterbottom's brutal West seems defined by people for whom love and affection simply can't take hold. Winterbottom could be applauded for capturing a time when life was so brutal it led people to extreme, cruel acts, but in failing to find the soul in his characters, he's lost the opportunity to astound us with this insight as something other than the norm; cruel behavior for cruel times.

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