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Death, desire, doom in a harsh land

Stake a spot to see 'The Claim'

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In this story:

Newcomers, old secrets

Travails past and present

Polley superb

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(CNN) -- "The Claim," the impressive new film from British director Michael Winterbottom, is part frontier adventure and part existential meditation. Loosely based on Thomas Hardy's novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge," it follows characters of varying ethical fiber through a labyrinth of greed, loss, and near-redemption.

It's easily the most compelling Western to hit our screens since "Unforgiven" picked up a best picture Oscar back in 1992.

The story takes place in the 1860s, in the muddy, perpetually snowbound Sierra Nevada community of Kingdom Come. Winterbottom skillfully entwines the concept of American expansionism with one man's desperate attempt to correct the ruinous mistakes of his youth.

Though the journey is psychologically complex, "The Claim"'s big themes are grounded in knowable human emotion. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce permits an unspoken sense of doom to slowly permeate the narrative, which leads to a furious, almost biblical climax.

Newcomers, old secrets

The film opens with the teen-aged Hope (Sarah Polley) and her deathly ill mother, Elena (Nastassja Kinski), arriving in Kingdom Come. Elena has told Hope that Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), the rich founder and sometimes brutal overseer of the town, is related to them by marriage.

What she doesn't say is that Dillon is actually Hope's father. We see in a flashback that, many years earlier, Elena, Dillon, and baby Hope were lost in the freezing wilderness. After a lone prospector rescues them, Dillon drunkenly sells his wife and child to the man for a bag of gold.

Now, Elena knows she's dying, and wants Dillon to take care of Hope when she's gone. But Elena has no idea how Dillon will react to the sight of his grown daughter suddenly riding into town.

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His complex, unexpected response, and Hope's awakening love for Mr. Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a traveling railroad surveyor, drives the story into increasingly dramatic territory.

Travails past and present

The events are deliberately paced, but the film never lets interest wane; several characters commit harsh, impulsive acts that can't be easily explained. Human devotion repeatedly scrapes against the desire for power and money, and sparks fly as a result. The harsh landscape adds an element of oppression to the various plot threads.

This is a movie about struggle, both emotional and physical. Dillon is coming to terms with the sins of his past while simultaneously trying to convince Dalglish to lay the transcontinental railroad through the middle of Kingdom Come. Dalglish, meanwhile, can't ignore his capitalistic duties long enough to properly fall in love with Hope.

And Hope? She longs for Dalglish, and has misgivings about Dillon's strange interest in her and her mother.

There's also a subplot concerning Dillon's relationship with a beautiful saloon singer (Milla Jovovich, who's surprisingly effective) that adds further depth.

Both Mullan and Bentley are quietly forceful, and Mullan pulls off a whale of a finale.

Polley superb

But Polley, as always, steals the show. She's simply one of the best actresses in America. As Hope, she seems to consciously size up situations instead of letting them seize her and take control. Polley somehow manages to mate fragility with enormous backbone, and this isn't the first time she's done it. Watch her performance in "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) for another memorable dose of her talent. If she keeps challenging herself and growing as performer, she'll have a legendary career. At the moment, she's an enormously gifted 20-year-old with the perceptiveness and self-possession of Cate Blanchett, and that's worth applauding. From the performances to the production design to Michael Nyman's elegiac score, "The Claim" is spellbinding. But Winterbottom's visuals could be perceived as outright thievery.

The overall look is an extremely deliberate nod to Robert Altman's groundbreaking anti-Western, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). Winterbottom and his gifted cinematographer, Alwin Kuchler, understand the brooding power of Altman's muted film. If scores of directors can duplicate the look of John Ford's iconic Monument Valley Westerns, why can't the same be done with Altman's mean, claustrophobic representation of the pioneer spirit?

It may resemble a picture you've seen before, but make no mistake: "The Claim" is very much its own movie. See it and savor the experience.

"The Claim" doesn't romanticize the old West. That's part of the point. There's a busy whorehouse, profanity, nudity, and sudden, shocking violence. Though it's a strangely poetic image, it's difficult to shake the sight of a burning horse running terrified through knee-deep snow. Rated R. 120 minutes.



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