Unfolding on the harsh slopes of the Sierra Nevada 20 years after the 1849 California Gold Rush, "The Claim" gets more out of snow than "Dr. Zhivago" did - and almost as much out of snow as "Lawrence of Arabia" got out of sand. The aptly named director, Michael Winterbottom, and his screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, set one man's hubris on a collision course with history. More than a visual delight and even more than a metaphor, snow provides the very skin and tissue of this hot-blooded fable.
A 49er named Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) has become the benevolent ruler of a town called Kingdom Come. He never orders an execution when a horse-whipping would do - that alone sets him apart from the petty despots of the stagecoach stops that line the mining routes. He's also a shrewd businessman. Not just the mine but the bank and hotel belong to him; so does the love and partnership of the town madam, Lucia (Milla Jovovich), whose girls have their own booming business.
But Dillon's position appears vulnerable when a railroad surveyor (Wes Bentley) arrives to decide if Kingdom Come is the right site for a depot - a make or break decision. Simultaneously, a beautiful, mortally ill stranger named Elena (Nastassja Kinski) reaches town with her big-eyed daughter Hope (Sarah Polley), awakening memories shared only by Dillon and the audience.
As this quintet plays out the themes of love, guilt and lucre, we come to see the snow as a leveler and common shroud, like Joyce's snow in "The Dead." But Winterbottom's snow also is a worthy opponent and a purifier, a heightening backdrop to human longing, and the poetic embodiment of emotions that seem frigid yet are so compressed and long-lasting that they possess glacial force.
The best images in "The Claim" - Dillon's men hauling a six-sided house across the snow-pack, or a blazing horse, set aflame in a nitro accident, galloping panicked into a mountainous wasteland - have an imaginative power and visceral authority that dwarf the computer-generated kapow of today's studio blockbusters. (The movie was shot in the Canadian Rockies.)
"The Claim" has grandeur to spare. What it lacks is narrative lucidity, even though Winterbottom and Boyce take their plot from Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge."
Hardy readers realize right away that Dillon is the film's version of the Mayor - that he traded Elena and Hope for his claim at Kingdom Come back in '49, then channeled his outrageous energy into making his fortune. But the staging of these events is so awkward that those who haven't read the book may not understand Dillon's past even after they see the explanatory flashbacks.
The wonderful moments still outweigh the flaws. The movie's exhilarating sweep comes not just from broad strokes but from tingling little bristles; in an image of astonishing purity, Hope cradles her dying mother in a sort of reverse Pieta. Like Robert Altman in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Winterbottom compels us to get to know the townspeople as if we were moving into their community. And like epic filmmakers of yore, he also celebrates the larger-than-life nature of a hero.
Mullan comes through with a performance of elemental might. By now it's a cliche to call a primal actor a "force of nature." Here, the snow is the force of nature. Mullan conjures something to match it: the force of human nature.
Starring Peter Mullan, Nastassja Kinski, Wes Bentley
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Rated R (sex, adult language and violence)
Released by MGM/UA
Running time 120 minutes
Sun score *** 1/2