“The Claim” is an epic story set against the winter landscape of the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the gold fever that was the making of California. Based on a work by Thomas Hardy, the gold rush of 1849 draws a young man named Dillon (Peter Mullan) and his wife (Natassja Kinski) to the severe but promising land of northern California. Dillon is a pioneer who defies the harsh winter in search of rumored gold. In a desperate drunken haze, Dillon trades his wife and daughter (Sarah Polley) for a significant gold claim. Years later, having amassed unimaginable riches, he finds himself running a thriving mining town called Kingdom Come. But the blind ambition and greed that drove him to succeed finally catch up to him with the arrival of three strangers: Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor looking to expand the Central Pacific Railroad into Kingdom Come, and the return of his wife and daughter.
While I love involving storytelling, “The Claim” tells a story that’s nearly as stark and depressing as its setting, lighting and photography. A rough-hewn community with its citizenry comprised mainly of gold seekers and prostitutes, the leads struggle with the climate and the emptiness of their lives. The environment is frigid and white with compacted snow, while the people bundle up in heavy black garments. This imagery sets the dispirited mood of both script and characters. It is well crafted, but the melancholy feel from start to finish left me nearly as cold as the film’s landscape. Even in Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” we are left with hope as the doomed protagonists have helped unite their families. This film, however, leaves us with a suicide caused by bitterness and self-reproach. While I appreciated the message that life always extracts a price for human error, I resented paying $8.50 for two hours of gloom and regret.