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Critical Ambivalence

Let’s talk about likability.

I don’t mean characters. This isn’t a screenwriting lecture. This is an arbitrary observation about the likability quotient of an overall film. A borderline intangible subject, I realize, but I don’t have anything else I want to write about in such a public forum, so this is it. Instead of watching a Cannon film this weekend, I watched The Claim.

It had two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it releases in 2000 (to qualify for awards whose committees largely ignored the film) and 2001 (ostensibly to make money, at which time the public ignored it). I had a dim recollection of seeing a trailer. I remembered Wes Bentley (the creepy, pot-dealing voyeur from American Beauty) in western garb, with a beard, and thought, “Hmm, I wonder if he has any acting range.” Then I forgot about the movie entirely until it appeared on IFC this weekend.

I struggle with my feelings about The Claim. I liked it, but it has numerous flaws. Characters amble without much sense of purpose. The ending makes virtually no fucking sense. Flashbacks don’t so much violate the “show, don’t tell” rule as create a new problem: show and tell. The film’s chief strength, excellent acting (yes, Wes Bentley can do more than look creepy and whisper), renders the flashbacks redundant. Most of what we need to know about the past is written on Peter Mullan’s weathered, sour face; what isn’t is explained in dialogue.

For those of you—a majority, I’m guessing—who don’t know what the fuck I’m prattling on about, The Claim is the loosest possible adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce changed the setting to a 19th-century mining town in the Sierra Nevadas. Twenty years earlier, Dillon (Mullan) sold his wife and daughter for another man’s gold claim. He was drunk and only half-serious, but when he woke the next morning, the other man had split with the wife and daughter.

Now, Elena (Nastassja Kinski) has returned with daughter Hope (Sarah Polley) to find Dillon has used the gold to build a thriving town that he runs independent of any government interference. Elena’s dying of an never-named disease that sounds a lot like tuberculosis; Hope serves as somewhat of a caretaker. Elena wants to reconnect with Dillon, who—luckily for her—has spent the past twenty years plagued with guilt and regret. He still loves his wife and immediately announces a marriage, because everyone in town thinks he’s unwed—including Lucia (Milla Jovovich), a local madame whom Dillon spends most of his time to that point fucking.

Meanwhile, this town—Kingdom Come, California—is on a collision course with wackiness, because the transcontinental railroad is a-comin’. Dalglish (pronounced “dog leash,” played by Bentley) leads a scouting team, but he’s an honest man who willingly partakes of bribes—Dillon and Lucia offer women and liquor to everyone involved with the railroad—without allowing them to factor into his decisions. Kingdom Come wants a railroad, but Dalglish knows it’ll be cheaper and easier to run the railroad through the valley below.

The movie I’m describing probably sounds like a Leone-esque epic, but Winterbottom eschews both classic and revisionist western ideas at every turn. He made a brooding, upsetting costume drama that happens to take place in saloons and cabins instead of castles and thatch-roofed hovels.

I have a hard time reconciling the fact that I enjoyed the act of watching the film while recognizing that it does not have much to recommend it beyond the acting and cinematography. So what does that mean? If I liked the movie despite its problems, couldn’t I argue, as Roger Ebert did in his review in 2000, its merits against its flaws? I could, but I feel like that argument would be disingenuous.

I’m not calling Ebert a fraud—I’m sure his review matches his feelings. For me, subjectively, I liked the movie, but I don’t think I could recommend it. Despite the occasional dull spots, I found myself willing to go along with the film. I wanted to see it through to the end. It didn’t annoy me; in fact, it engendered something akin to friendly empathy. But this isn’t an average friend—this is the friend you’ve grown up with since elementary school. You know he’s had issues forever, you know his home life is screwed up, you know he grew up on the inevitable path toward becoming a fuck-up—but, goddammit, he’s your fuck-up. You may defend him to people outside your circle of friends, but within the circle, it’s all, “Shit, what are we gonna do about The Claim? We really gotta help him.”

So how can I defend it using the standard tools of critical persuasion, knowing full well that it’s a problem film that would likely result in anyone to whom I recommend it returning to me with rage in their eyes? “How dare you tell me that’s a good film?”

It’s a tough call. With numerous caveats, I can recommend a film like Death Wish 3 enthusiastically. But a film like that delivers on an implicit promise that The Claim simply doesn’t. I TiVo’ed it because the description spoke of a failed miner who trades his wife and daughter for a gold claim, only to encounter them twenty years later. I have visions of gunfights, horse chases, melodramatic dialogue, and heavy-handed symbolism about the folly of American greed. That’s not the movie I got, and although I liked the movie I got overall, I have no way of recommending it without also noting a thousand things that make it sound unwatchable.

Where does that leave me? Fucking glad I don’t have to review it.

But that brings up a deeper issue. What if I did have to review it? I’ve written my share of wishywashy reviews, but it’s rarely satisfying to produce a review that doesn’t tell the person reading it whether or not they may like the film. Even when I hate a film, I try to suggest that maybe someone who, for instance, suffers under the delusion that Natalie Portman can act may enjoy it. It’s rare that I can’t even figure out what made the film worked for me, to pass it along to the readers who may feel the same.

The critical conundrum I’ve always faced—and one Matt and I designed The Parallax Review as a specific response to—is how much of my opinion needs to enter the equation. If I define a critic as someone whose job is to contextualize a work of art, then that means I can’t recommend the film—whether I liked it or not—because it doesn’t live up to the criteria set out by my standards as a critic. As a western, it departs from the genre, but its departure doesn’t wholly succeed. As a film about greed, it amounts to virtually nothing. As a sweeping romance—which is where most of its focus lies—it’s acceptable but doesn’t exactly put a new spin on its ideas. It doesn’t use its setting or ideas as a platform for any sort of commentary on past or present ideals. It’s…just a movie. Not a bad one, not a great one, but it definitely has more bad than good.

So where does that leave the bumbling critic, struggling with his own identity? Should I turn against a movie I technically liked because I know tough-selling its redeeming qualities would misrepresent the film? I think the answer is “yes,” because it’s not a critic’s responsibility to state his opinion as fact. A subjective opinion and emotional reaction are pieces in a larger puzzle; unfortunately, when all those pieces come together, the image that forms depicts a steaming cowpie.

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