The opening half hour is so stunning that it makes your head swim- the camera sweeps into the snowfields of British Colombia whilst Stanley Myers' hauntingly repetitive theme throbs on the soundtrack. Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) is prospecting for gold and ditches his partners. Surrounded by wolves, he gets a small talisman that he takes back to a brothel. The madam Frida fortells the future: "You'll find what you're looking for. But afterwards?"
Jack sets off and discovers the gold (a genuinely amazing sequence). His ecstasy is short lived when he returns to his dying mistress. A burst of flame shoots forth and the film cuts to twenty years later when Jack is nostalgically telling the story to his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell). Tracy is in love with an insubstantial dilettante Claude Mio Van Horne (Rutger Hauer), who Jack loathes. At that moment in time Tracy is looking forward, Jack is looking back.
Jack is bored. He says "Once I had it all. Now I only have everything". He is aware that his daughter is his soul-clone. On the surface, they appear quite different- he's bitter, she's a hedonist. Yet small details (both admonish Jack's alcoholic wife Helen to "lay off the sauce" and they both have a stunning gift for mathematics) tell the truth. They understand each other perfectly.
Jack is under siege from a pack of wolves who come in the shape of gangsters who want to develop Jack's island. Eventually the gangsters and Claude invade the house and Jack is brutally murdered. After this terrifying yet beautiful sequence, the film becomes more problematic. The courtroom scenes that follow contain dialogue that spells out the movie's themes and Russell's performance is hysterical. But the punchline as Tracy emasculates her husband is a doozy: "Claude...they despise you because you have me and I'm worth having. They despise me because I'm Jack's daughter and I have too much. And of course, they still despise Jack because he found what they're all still looking for". The movie atones for a lot with its gorgeous final moments as Claude paddles away.
It's difficult to articulate the power this movie has. It has an extraordinary power to sweep you away- it's a crazy, violent, lovely, magical experience. It's about the human condition and it deals with issues that are almost never talked about- the price we pay for getting what we want, the moments in life where we find our purpose, the essence of people that is passed down through the generations, the difference between old and new souls. The film's main flaws (clumsy dialogue) are directly linked to the main virtue (the sheer overwhelming density of the material). Its a movie that will speak to you personally or leave you cold (there's no middle ground) and I find it almost an affront when somebody doesn't respond positively to it.