Cold Mountain

     Too much of a good thing is okay – But two good things are often too much.
     The new film Cold Mountain suffers from this sort of excess. Billed as the story of a Civil War romance, the movie feels like two great ideas connected by the thinnest sort of conceit. Divided by the very thing that is supposed to connect both stories – the relationship between its two central characters, strangers, really – Cold Mountain is feminist deconstruction masquerading as a chick flick.
     The result of this alchemist sleight of hand is a Frankenstein monster that destroys the very thing it proposes to love: In this case a great film.
     Inman (Jude Law) is a young southern carpenter who falls in love with the local minister’s daughter, Ada (Nichole Kidman), before the beginning of the Civil War. The two come from very different worlds, but their physical attraction is so electric that their love affair grows during the first few months of the war, as Inman fights in bloody battle after bloody battle. 
     After he is wounded, the confederate soldier begins his long journey back to Cold Mountain, where Ada is trying to manage on her own in a world robbed of its men. She can play piano, recite poetry and set a fine dinner place, but her womanly skills are limited in a world where food is scarce and the fields go to rot. She is forced to confront new ideas of femininity when a fiery, independent drifter named Ruby (Renee Zellweger) volunteers to help Ada in exchange for food and lodging. 
     Not all girls have the luxury to wear pink gloves and delicate scarves. Ruby strangles an ornery wild rooster as she introduces herself to Ada, and curses and spits when she feels like it. She is strangely exotic in Ada’s overprotected, cultured world, and she makes the minister’s wife reconsider her own place in the gendered cosmos. 
     Ada’s life has been based on principles set down by her father. She has been constructed like a rag doll, filled with traits that make her a charming hostess, but not much of a person. Her father wanted her to be a daughter or a wife – someone to entertain men – not a person who has to do dirty work just to survive. She’s a comfortable companion but completely unsuited to overcome everyday hardships. 
     The film makes domestic life dangerous, pushing the concept that the female sphere is harmless, civilized and protected. Women bear the brunt of the war in ways men couldn’t imagine, by becoming hard, tough, and rugged.
     The world of men – represented by the war – undergoes the same sort of fundamental re-evaluation as the domestic, female realm. The Civil War is the brutal, final victory of masculinity, a thing so violent and terrible that it erases the idea that there’s any dignity in combat. The battle scenes’ carnage is so real that it makes you forget the battle for the one ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
     This is a world in which the ground is warm with blood and parts that no longer belong to anyone. Inman confronts this expression of the masculine and turns his back on it, choosing instead to return to Cold Mountain and Ada’s promise of nourishment and respite. It’s the idea of Ada, of female comfort, that drives Inman through the southern wastelands, but this idea is in flux at home, where Ada is learning to fend for herself and expect little in return.
     Inman travels through the south he had been fighting for, but its nature has been touched by the war in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. The sweetness has been tainted by blood and blight and though the land is achingly beautiful – the south we all secretly pine for – it is also secretive and dangerous. It is irrevocably fallen, a world where values have gone terribly wrong. 
     Inman is lost in a country without moral repercussions, a land that no longer makes sense. Ada struggles in a new, unfamiliar universe where her new found power is tempered by newly discovered dangers, where comfort is a dangerous myth. 
     But we’re the real casualties of their estrangement: We’re stuck in a movie that has created diametrically opposed worldviews and connected them through a trite, unrealistic convention, a film that could have been much greater than the sum of its parts if it had held its center.
     Either story could have made a great film despite their shortcomings – A very, very unfortunate sex scene, several mean-spirited subplots that dumb the movie down, the faux weight of their moral arguments – but the film feels too compressed and constricted as it is. Disrupting the traditional gender codes paradoxically girdles the plot to a political agenda, and although these are some of the best actors currently working giving some of their best performances, it’s impossible to buy into the love story.
     (Personally I felt there was more chemistry between Kidman and Zellweger than Kidman and Law. I kept waiting for a Madonna / Britney Spears kiss. A hastily constructed romantic subplot designed to give Ruby a beau – to disarm our suspicions of some lesbian love affair – felt unconvincing and, quite frankly, a bit insulting.)
     Cold Mountain is a remarkable history of a particularly violent chapter of America’s history, and I would recommend it on this basis alone. The United States is built on bodies, dirty tricks and the relentless desire to kill one another, and Cold Mountain is certainly the antidote for films like The Lord of the Rings and We Were Soldiers that tend to glamorize war.
     The film reminds us that that life is precious and war isn’t just a mistake; it’s a cold crime.


Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

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