A Western set in the snow, a 19th-century English novel transported to the American gold rush, a morality tale in which every character not only suffers and learns, but Symbolizes, too: Michael Winterbottom’s personal, historical drama, The Claim, based on ”The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy, has a lot on its mind.
Maybe too much. Winterbottom (”Wonderland”), a filmmaker who likes a lot of stuff going on in his movies, combines personal stories of sin and atonement with a vision of frontier America as a redemptive place. Irish prospector Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan from ”My Name Is Joe”) once traded his wife and baby daughter for the cash to stake his claim. Now he’s the richest man in the town of Kingdom Come and lover of the local brothel owner (Milla Jovovich). The past and the future overtake him, though, with the arrival of his ailing wife (Nastassja Kinski), their grown daughter (Sarah Polley), and a forward looking railroad surveyor (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) seeking to expand the Central Pacific Railroad.
The cast is individually intelligent, refined, and understated (except, perhaps, during the long minutes when Kinski enacts an agonizing tubercular decline). But there’s something almost too controlled, cerebral, and overdetermined about Winterbottom’s Western notions, which reference ”McCabe & Mrs. Miller” but eschew Robert Altman’s sense of propulsion. In one stately set piece, Dillon oversees the delivery of an opulent new house, hauled by local laborers. I’ve seen a ship dragged in ”Fitzcarraldo,” a glass church toted in ”Oscar and Lucinda,” but this is the first time I’ve seen a metaphor stuck in the snow.