The Claim gets off to a terrible start. It begins with a group of people coming into the small town of Kingdom Come, but before we have even been introduced to them, they’re already communicating like they know one another. Obviously some of them do, but we seem to be missing all of the in-jokes and relations. Some have just known each other, but they’re talking like they’ve know, one another for years. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is hard to hear and there are so many people to follow around that we’re instantly disoriented.
Regardless, this is how The Claim opens up. Over the course of the film, we’ll get to know some of the characters, although none of them well enough. We find out that the town is more or less run by a man named Mr. Dillon (Peter Mullan). He owns the stores, he decides who can come and go, and he even sets the rules (in the first scene, the characters are told that no firearms are allowed in-town because Mr. Dillon says so). This is one powerful man, so it only makes sense that he’ll play a pivotal role later on.
Coming into the town are a few people, some of whom matter, while others don’t. Firmly on the “matter” side is Donald Daglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad who desires to place tracks down either going through Kingdom Come, or close to it. Mr. Dillon wants it in town, obviously for business reasons. Also on the “matter” side are the terminally ill Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley). Their reason for being in-town is something I’ll leave for you to discover.
What transpires over the rest of the film are a progression of these characters as we discover things that they already know. Like with the opening scene, they all seem to be aware of small (or sometimes rather large) details that are only slowly revealed to us. Presenting us with the information this way is a risky move on the part of director Michael Winterbottom. Whether or not it pays off will depend on who you are, and if you can deal with a much slower pace as a result.
For me, this resulted in a film that was, at times, too slow. Character often just sat around, doing very little, and it made for a boring watch. Once things got going, we started learning about them, and “shocking” reveals were made, I started to have a good time. But in between these moments are long, drawn-out periods of almost nothingness. Well-photographed nothingness (seriously, cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler deserves a ton of credit here), but nothingness nonetheless.
Of course, doing nothing is just what the characters would have to do during both the time period and the season. The Claim is set during the gold rush, as well as during the Winter. When it’s snowing and it’s too cold outside to work, what are you going to do? Stay at the saloon or the brothel, sleep a great deal, sit around and drink while chatting with friends or strangers — but that’s about it. This comes across clearly in the film, but filming this doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable watch.
The style of the film, where you’re mostly just dropping into the lives of these people — eavesdropping on their conversations, if you will — instead of watching a traditional film, works both in its favor and against it. It helps because it makes the film unique. It helps with immersion because you feel like you’re really in this town. We don’t think we’re on a movie set, and we don’t instantly think these people are actors. It looks authentic, and that means something in a period piece.
Also helping to set the scene are the actors. You can dress terrible actors in accurate costumes, place them in front of realistic sets, and they’ll ruin the immersion and believability because they’re, well, bad actors. Luckily, this film has good actors who — even though some of them can’t keep a consistent accent — help make us feel like we’re back in the mid-1800s. They don’t need a lot of range here, though, as there are few highly emotional scenes, but for what they were given, they all did fine.
However, choosing to leave in mundane and largely unimportant scenes, while making it seem more genuine, hurts the pacing and can potentially bore an audience. Sure, you’re immersed, but how much does that really mean if you feel like you want to leave the town you’re in? I wanted that train to be built so I could get the first ticket out of this place and go somewhere more interesting. This filming/editing style is a balancing act that doesn’t quite pay off.
It does mean that the film is unpredictable. You’re not going to figure out who will do what after watching the first 30 or so minutes, which is almost a rarity. Some things you might be able to figure out, but many of the reveals felt fresh in my mind. That does come with the territory when we’re sometimes unsure of which character we’re currently watching and why they’re important, but when the revelations occur and they surprise you, you are given a good feeling.
The Claim is a film that I feel really unsure about after watching it. One one hand, it tried something unique by not playing out like your generic film. Instead, we get to eavesdrop on some characters, learning about them really slowly, and not really giving them a plot. On the other hand, this style means that there’s a lot of downtime and I was frequently bored. I suppose I have to use the “Is It Fun?” test to determine whether I had a good time. The answer to that is: “Intermittently, but on the whole, no.” There you go.