Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Claim

I first got acquainted with the work of Michael Winterbottom through the films 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. Two films which I enjoyed very much, the former being what convinced me that Joy Division was a pretty cool band after all. I decided that he was a director to watch, but I had only really seen his merry prankster side. While I knew he could make jolly postmodern comedies with large doses of Steve Coogan - nothing wrong with that, naturally - I had no idea if he could find his way around more serious material.

Judging by this, yes, he can.

As the story goes, once upon a time in the west, young Wes Bentley decided he would stop being that slightly creepy guy and become a railroad planner. He goes to a town called Kingdom Come, run by a man named Dillon, played by Peter Mullan and his sensitive beard. What he doesn't know, however, is that the town was founded when a much younger and less bearded and played by a different actor Dillon got the claim to the land for the town from an extremely horny man for the low, low price of his wife and daughter.

Now, while it might be tempting to sell your wife and daughter for a lot of gold, no matter how horny the purchaser might be, the film itself is a tale of delayed karmic retribution. While Dillon is rolling in gold and Milla Jovovich in the intervening years, the film picks up when Bentley and his long abandoned wife and daughter, Nasstasja Kinski (daughter of extremely crazy actor Klaus Kinski) and Sarah Polley (somewhat crazy Canadian girl who is very attractive) show up, and things go steadily more badly for him, until he progressively loses everything.

I've never much liked westerns because they tend to be excessively yellow. This is an extremely ridiculous complaint and I admit it fully, but I have a tendency to be interested in how a movie looks just as much as I care about the story and characters, and too much yellow is annoying. Luckily, this takes place in the winter, so while it still has too much yellow, it's got lots of snow to balance it out and it becomes very pretty. I mention it being pretty because the beauty of the winter is an important part of how it's filmed. Winterbottom uses a very, very shallow depth of field in most scenes and the lighting makes the whole thing soft and strangely romantic. Combined with Mullen's sensitive beard and you've got a film that looks as lightly sad as the story is.

There are problems. Some scenes don't seem to have much of a point in the whole - the hot surveying action is just a distraction from the more important story happening. There's a subplot about marriage that exists solely to hammer home a point about creation and destruction happening simultaneously. I can't help but think that with a little tighter editing, it might have been a bit stronger.

But that point about creation and destruction? It's edited in a quite a lovely manner and the contrasts are fascinating, and it's a great way to end the picture. It's a case of something that, when it works, works wonderfully. The overall sad prettiness of the picture is fantastic. It could be tighter, but so what, it's a lovely movie.

Here's the big question though, why is it that I never heard of this film until I decided I was a Winterbottom fan? It's actually a really good movie, with an interesting story and nice cinematography. Easily better than a number of critically acclaimed and award winning films set in the same era (hello There Will Be Blood, I still don't like you!). Why doesn't anyone talk about The Claim?

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