Hardy Working

The Claim takes Thomas Hardy out West; Freddy Got Fingered finds Tom Green at his worst.

The Claim

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

United Artists

Freddy Got Fingered

Directed by Tom Green

20th Century Fox

The credits for Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim make the claim that it’s “inspired” by Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and for once that word seems apt: Although fundamental details have been altered and the setting shifted thousands of miles (from a semi-urban Wessex to a wintry settlement in the Sierra Nevada, circa 1869), the film is surprisingly Hardyesque in spirit. The Claim turns out to be an improbably stirring hybrid of the mid-19th-century English novel and the American Western, in which the looming snow-covered mountains are even more formidable than the Yorkshire moors, and in which the willful protagonist is challenged not by bad guys in black hats but by a universe that refuses to let him off the hook for titanic flaws of character. As befits its setting, this is a simpler, bolder, and more romantic saga than Hardy’s, but it gives off the same vapor of impending tragedy—of a fate neither just nor unjust but ineffably, wrenchingly right.

The story of the novel, which critics have compared to King Lear and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, emanates from an unspeakable act: the decision (while drunk) of a poor, angry man called Henchard to unload his burdensome wife and infant for cash. The protagonist of The Claim is an Irish immigrant with the more Wild Western moniker Dillon (Peter Mullan), and the goldmine he accepts in exchange for his spouse and daughter bankrolls the remote but thriving California town of Kingdom Come, over which he presides like an earl or thane. Decades after the deed that brought him his fortune, Dillon owns the land, collects the revenues, and dispenses justice in the form of public whippings. (His punishments are said to be more compassionate than those of neighboring towns, with their frequent gunfights and lynchings.) His enforcer, Sweetley (Sean McGinley), could be his taller, grimmer alter ego—his will made flesh. Dillon has exclusive rights to the town’s hotcha brothel owner, Lucia (Milla Jovovich), who has helped him design a six-sided mansion crammed with San Francisco finery. And the prospect of a railroad passing through Kingdom Come on its way to Sacramento suggests a future more opulent yet.

As in Hardy’s novel, the twin forces of the protagonist’s undoing arrive in town at the same instant: the past in the form of the ailing Elena (Nastassja Kinski), and her beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley), who have come to find what the girl thinks is a “rich relation”; the future in the person of the young railroad surveyor Dalglish (Wes Bentley), in whose hands rests the economic fate of Kingdom Come. Here, the novel and film diverge, because Hardy’s rather bourgeois Henchard doesn’t have the grandeur commensurate with the movie’s mighty landscapes and howling mountain winds. A narcissist of cosmic dimensions, Dillon is extravagant, drunk on his own myth, and convinced he can make amends for the closest thing on earth to an original sin. His rejection of Lucia, a passionate lover and loyal business partner, is bewilderingly abrupt; his courtship of the frail Elena ludicrously (if thrillingly) florid; his decision to march on the railroad surveyors with rifles a grotesque demonstration of impotence. His foundation already weakened by the betrayal that made him rich, he soon becomes the chief instrument of his own destruction. He makes his external and internal worlds one.

Along with Hardy, there’s another (uncredited) inspiration: Robert Altman’s rough-hewn yet lyrical McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the movies’ greatest counterculture Western. Winterbottom goes in for the same glancing long shots and ensemble hubbub; for events that seem not staged for the camera but caught on the fly, as if by a wry 19th-century documentarian. But Winterbottom’s universe isn’t created in the same hippie/utopian spirit as Altman’s. It’s harsher, with hard white light and an icy clarity. (And Michael Nyman’s attempt at Dvorák-in-America romanticism is a chill substitute for Leonard Cohen.) But, as in McCabe, characters seen fleetingly behave with real autonomy, as if they actually existed: the courtly but suspicious sheriff Sweetley; Vauneen (Kate Hennig), who directs the whorehouse like an efficient stage manager; and Annie, the tiny prostitute with the twittery voice (Shirley Henderson, of Topsy-Turvy [1999]), who wraps herself exuberantly around Dalglish’s partner (Julian Richings) and seduces him into marriage.

This is all in addition to the sterling leads. At first, the great Scottish actor Mullan keeps Dillon’s emotions so primly under wraps that when they finally emerge he has no way to express them: He has to show what he feels by transforming the material world—erecting or spectacularly destroying. I never thought I’d be doffing my cap to Milla Jovovich, but at last she has a role that wrings emotion out of her peculiar, supermodelish sense of entitlement. As the sueveyor, Wes Bentley—the weirdo-next-door in American Beauty (1999)—somehow pulls off a part that purposely blurs the line between boyishly enterprising and seedily enterprising. And Sarah Polley uses her skittish air to give the ingenue an elusive depth—no matter how much Polley is on screen in a movie, I don’t get enough of her.

The only major misjudgment by Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce is turning Hardy’s first chapter—one of the most shocking in literature—into a conventional flashback and saving it for half an hour into the film. So The Claim opens soft, and the sale of the family (which in The Mayor of Casterbridge builds to a near-operatic pitch) doesn’t have the same kind of epic reverberation. It’s a puzzling lapse in a movie otherwise true to its source, finding the seed of all great epics in the divisions of the heart.

If Tom Green wanted to make a movie about the divisions of the heart, he would likely plunk a bleeding heart down on the table and pull it apart with his hands. How does one account for this raving lunatic? He’s trying to bridge the gap between Buster Keaton and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but he seems to regard them as interchangeable. In Freddy Got Fingered—the most appalling comedy of the millennium after Joe Dirt, which is so supernaturally terrible that it levitated me out of the theater after 40 minutes—Green takes the Steamboat Bill, Jr. scenario of a goofy son trying to win his father’s respect and turns it into something freakish, gory, and psychotically transgressive. It sounds promising in theory, but even promising theories need talent in practice. In a scene in which the aspiring animator hero (Green) goes to work on an assembly line making cheese sandwiches, the formula calls for him to do something wacky to louse it up—so Green simply hops on the conveyor belt and tonelessly sings, “I’m a sexy boy! Ding dong ding dong!” until he mercifully cuts away. His true love (Marisa Coughlan), the girl who keeps him pure, is a paraplegic who requires whacking on the shins with a bamboo cane while she screams she wants to suck his cock. And sonny boy’s way of finally expressing his anger at his dad (Rip Torn) involves masturbating an enormous elephant dick and hosing the old man down. I think perhaps I’m making Freddy Got Fingered sound more appealing than it is. It’s like notes for a comedy by the village idiot.