Cold Mountain (2003) 

Alan:

Ebert: Rolling Stone: 1/2 TV Guide:


Warning, minor plot points revealed!

Anthony Minghella, the director of Cold Mountain, seems to enjoy bringing to the screen movies based on wildly popular books.  Considering what I know of the reaction to his last endeavors, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The English Patient,  the people who love the books do not like the films but those not familiar with the source literature enjoy and sometimes award them Best Picture.

Cold Mountain is not a Best Picture.  It might be a nominee, but even that's a stretch.  It's a well made film with good performances that tells an engaging story but it never achieves greatness.  I liked it, I recommend it, but I don't think its as good as everyone hoped it would be.

If you had read the book by Charles Frazier you would know that Cold Mountain tells the story of a wounded Civil War soldier who embarks on a perilous journey back home to Cold Mountain, North Carolina to reunite with his sweetheart with whom he had a brief random encounter prior to the start of the war.  Along the yellow brick way he meets a dirty rainbow of characters who either help or hinder his passage while back home his true love learns, with the help of a spunky local gal, how to sustain herself.  I made it sound stupid but it really is a decent story.

The brief scenes of the Civil War near the beginning of the film are fun to watch.  The huge explosion and the great battle that proceeds it are a sight to behold.  I'm not sure if those were all "real" soldiers but if they were then that was a truly epic cinematic achievement.  The rest of the film involves life on the farm back at Cold Mountain and Inman's journey back home through the wilds of America as a war deserter.  Oddly, the film was shot in Transylvania to get that rustic old time America look? 

The actors all do a fine job.  Some are better than others.  The leads, Nichole Kidman and Jude Law are completely overshadowed by their supporting cast.  They both perform well but the eccentric people they surround themselves with lessen their overall impact in the film.  Donald Sutherland appears briefly as Ada's (Kidman's) father.  His character is nothing special but I just thought I'd drop his name.  Ray Winstone does a nice job as the villain Teague who takes over as "Sheriff" on Cold Mountain during the war.  He is a delightfully evil character who is guaranteed to commit an atrocity every time he's on the screen.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the fallen and disgraced preacher Veasey that Inman (Law) meets up with on the way home.  This was my favorite character in the film.  A heretic and a sinner who wears the robe of God but isn't against a little theft, murder or the random orgy every now and then.  Giovanni Ribisi pops up as a filthy guy who helps and then betrays Inman and Veasey.  He seemed to be having a fun time with the role.  There's a few scenes with Natalie Portman as a mother with an infant who latches onto Inman.  I liked her story but I never really believed her character (I'll get to that in a moment).  Renée Zellweger is the standout performance in the film as the girl named Ruby who takes over the farm where Kidman lives and sets it back to operational status.  I would not be surprised if she is nominated for and perhaps even wins the Academy Award for the role.  I wouldn't be disappointed either.  She did a great job.  

Lastly, for some reason that I do not understand at all, the singer for the Detroit rock band The White Stripes, Jack White, has a large cameo with both dialogue and songs.  He's actually a major character by the end of the film!  He does a decent job I guess but I will never understand his participation in the project.  I would say it probably has to do with his romantic relationship with Renée Zellweger but I thought that coupling took place during and after the film, not prior to it.  

One problem I had with the movie was that the women (Zellweger, Portman and to a lesser degree Kidman) never really looked like women who lived the hard life of the Civil War era.  Kidman and Zellweger always looked a little too clean and they both had absolutely perfect teeth.  I spend a considerable amount of time surfing in North Carolina and I don't think the women who live there today have teeth that nice!  Portman's character is roughing it completely on her own with an infant in a shack out in the middle of a nowhere backwater swamp and she looks as ravishing as when she is Queen Amidala sitting on her throne in the Star Wars movies.

One disturbing aspect of the movie, that I thought about a couple days after viewing, is that the only occasions I remember the audience reacting to anything was during the multiple times that an animal was killed or mutilated.  After thinking about it I am amazed at how many times this happened during the film.  I can think of 5 such moments immediately and there were probably more.  A sassy rooster's head gets jerked off, a dead cow is sawed into easier to move chunks, an adorable little goat is bled to death,  a frozen baby deer is tied to a spit and roasted and finally a dead lamb is skinned and the fur is then pulled over another baby lamb to keep it warm.  I don't remember if anyone reacted to any of the human stories but when these animals died there were plenty of gasps and murmurs.  

I liked Cold Mountain.  It's definitely worth seeing.  Unfortunately I watched it right after I saw House of Sand and Fog which is a far superior film.  I'm not sure how the movie Cold Mountain stacks up to the book but as a film it's just as good as The English Patient and almost as entertaining as The Talented Mr. Ripley.