War is nasty
The Year of the Epic continues with Cold Mountain, a lush and rather nasty adaptation of the best selling Civil War novel by Charles Frazier. After Master and Commander, The Last Samurai and The Return of the King, Cold Mountain provides more entertainment of the “large” variety.
The film depicts an America consumed by violence and ferocious behavior, with the country’s men celebrating the official start of the war as if their football team made it to the playoffs. Director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) doesn’t refrain from showing vicious chaos, unspeakable horrors infiltrating every aspect of American life. People of all classes, whether living on a plantation or a cabin in the woods, are victimized. While the film does have a love story at its center, it’s as much about barbarianism as the pursuit of romance.
Cold Mountain is the Civil War movie antidote to this year’s bombastic Gods and Generals, which is easily one of the worst films of 2003. While that film was a whitewashed depiction of the war as a glorious moment of triumph in American history, Cold Mountain is determined to depict the plague of violence brought on by the clash as a historical low point. The result is a film that is often unpleasant to watch and very unsettling. This ain’t no Gone with the Wind.
The story unwinds in non-linear fashion. Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), who sustained a mean wound to the neck during battle, travels cross-country back to Cold Mountain, where Ada (Nicole Kidman), a woman he barely knew but undeniably loved before shipping out, awaits his return. Inman’s journey is an episodic tour of hell. He is pursued as a deserter and witnesses treacherous forms of violence and betrayal along the way.
Meanwhile Ada, raised delicately by her preacher father (Donald Sutherland), is stunned by her dad’s sudden death and must learn how to maintain a farm and survive the country’s downward spiral into savagery. She is assisted by local character Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who twists the head off of a chicken within minutes of meeting her. Together, the two women endure the surprise of Ruby’s long lost father’s (Brendan Gleeson) return and heartless attacks on their homeland by the murderous Teague (Ray Winstone), who hunts deserters and those who shelter them.
The film offers casting surprises at every turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as an immoral preacher about to murder a slave woman he has impregnated. His disgraced character provides a short intermission of strange comic relief and company for the beleaguered Inman before meeting his ugly fate. As a backwoods southerner selling out deserters, Giovanni Ribisi uses his trademark weirdness as an absolute creep. Most notable is Natalie Portman as a widowed mother painfully yearning for a night of companionship. While Portman’s screen time is short, her performance is one of the film’s most powerful.
Other casting surprises include musician Jack White of The White Stripes as Zellweger’s love interest, and Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later (which also starred Gleeson) as a federal raider.
A lack of chemistry between Kidman and Law is more attributable to their characters’ lack of time together rather than their inability to generate heat. That they are awkward together onscreen is totally appropriate: Inman and Ada are barely afforded the chance to know one another, which gives the film a mark of sadness. Zellweger virtually disappears into her role, which feels a bit hammy at first, but is a bold turn nonetheless.
While the film has its share of loveliness, Minghella doesn’t ignore the horrors that were on display in Frazier’s novel. Cold Mountain is an ugly movie, and it should be.