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"I don't count on anything anymore, except the hope that you will return, and the silent fear that in the end, since we saw each other, this war, this awful war, will have changed us both beyond all reckoning."
Despite the fact that this Civil War movie set in North Carolina was filmed in Romania, directed by a Brit and stars an Australian, it comes off as authentic and deeply personal. In it, as the terrible shadow of war creeps over Cold Mountain, N.C., Inman and Ada are just beginning to fall in love. One desperate, passionate kiss on the porch is all they're allowed to share before Inman is cruelly whisked into the epicenter of civil destruction.
Ada promises she will wait for him. He promises he will return to her. Neither has any idea what it will take to make good on their simple words of devotion. After witnessing more death than any man should ever have to as his Confederate troops battle the North, Inman is grievously wounded. Back home, Ada's elderly father, a minister, dies, leaving her alone on a remote farm (they've let their slaves go free, so she has no one to tend it and no training or skill to tend it herself). She writes a letter—one among hundreds—to Inman, begging him to come home: "If you are marching, stop marching. If you are fighting, stop fighting. ... My last thread of courage is to wait, and believe."
He gets that letter while recovering from his battle injuries, and silently decides to fulfill her wish. So he slips away and begins a long and arduous journey home. As a deserter, he's now not just a target for Union soldiers, he's marked and despised by his own Confederate comrades. His beloved, meanwhile, is on the brink of giving up on him and herself, until a spunky country girl named Ruby rips her out of her depression by sauntering into her life and throwing her lot in with Ada's. The two work hard to get the now-dilapidated farm back into productive condition, and grow enough food for the winter.
If there's any one cohesive message here, it's that war is far worse than anyone who has not experienced it will ever know. Elsewhere, Ruby, who's far from afraid of hard work, teaches Ada that many times it's a cure for "what ails you." Together, the two women face life's difficulties head-on, almost daring it to throw another curve their way. The trials they jointly navigate have the effect of making them fast friends, and there's many times that they selflessly look after each other.
Inman stops a man from killing a slave woman, and refuses to harm a band of slaves escaping Southern confinement. As if to establish that his motivation for desertion isn't cowardice, he displays considerable bravery in combat, risking his life for the sake of his fellow fighters.
Despite vivid remembrances of past wrongs, Ruby ultimately extends compassion and forgiveness to her neglectful, abusive father. A Union soldier shows pity for a Confederate woman's baby when his compatriots take the child as a hostage to make her tell them where her food stores are.
After Ada's father makes it clear that he will not "preach war" in his church, Inman says to him, "I imagine God is weary of being called down on both sides of an argument." A local superstition has it that if anyone leans over a specific well and looks at the water with a mirror, he or she will see images from the future (Ada does so and sees Inman). Afterwards, she writes to him that she felt like "a mad woman staring into its secrets. Was it you I saw walking home to me or was it your ghost?"
Misrepresenting scripture to defend his theft of a saw, Inman's mismatched traveling companion, Veasey (a disgraced preacher), declares, "You'll find the good Lord [isn't too picky] on the subject of property." All around, Veasey's character seems designed to defame the clergy. He throws spiritual-sounding terms around, but his life is a wreck, full of sin and unbridled carnal desires. (He's balanced somewhat by a very positive portrayal of Ada's father, who extends proper Christian love and hospitality to all those around him.)
Unnerved by the violence and hatred she sees around her, Ruby cries out, "This world can't stand for long. God won't let it."
Violence is to be expected at least in some measure in a movie about the Civil War. The sexual content in Cold Mountain, however, feels especially grating and gratuitous in this context, and is sometimes shrilly explicit. The most jarring moment comes when a group of women (seemingly being used to ensnare wandering deserters) throw themselves at Inman and Veasey. Several are seen with their breasts exposed and in sexual positions. One exposes her chest and her backside.
Later, when Inman begs for food from a Confederate widow, she takes him in, and after growing to trust him, asks him to hold her in bed to comfort her. He does do that, but makes sure that she knows he has a woman he loves and that he's not interested in going any further. Frustratingly, Inman's commitment to hold out for true love is at odds with the way the movie churlishly depicts the temptations that fall across his path.
[Spoiler Warning] When Inman does make it back to Ada's side, the pair consummate their romance. Brief glimpses of bare body parts (including rears and breasts) are interspersed with kisses and sexual movements. This doesn't occur until after they have "married" themselves in a one-on-one ceremony of sorts. Ada remarks that war "makes some things seem pointless," and that weddings are one of those things. Then, she goes on to wonder aloud if there might be some religion somewhere in which people can get married by repeating "I marry you" three times. They murmur the phrase, pledge their loyalty to one another, and then they fall into bed.
A Union soldier begins to rape a Confederate woman (Inman kills him). There's talk of a minister's "bastard" child with a slave woman. Ruby asks Ada if she's ever "wrapped her legs around" Inman. A woman offers Inman sex for $30 (she's killed before he can accept or reject her offer).
The first 45 minutes or so bounces back and forth between harsh battle scenes and idyllic images of Cold Mountain three years prior. The juxtaposition is heart- and gut-wrenching. On the front, huge explosions launch men high into the air. Bayonets are thrust into scores of chests. And bullets fell even more. Men with gore-streaked faces and bodies fight for their lives—and many times fail. Inman himself is shot in the neck with gory results. Flies swarm over mounds of dead bodies seen in the lulls between battles.
In Cold Mountain—once the effects of the war begin to be felt there—a group of men appoint themselves the "Home Guard," and use their power to intimidate and control all those who aren't actively fighting. One of their primary "responsibilities" seems to be rounding up returning deserters and killing them. To root them out, they resort to torturing the traitors' families. In one case, they place a woman's neck in a noose and her hands between the logs of a wooden fence, gleefully grinding the planks together to make her scream. This compels her sons to emerge from the barn whereupon they are shot dead. A man is viciously stabbed in the chest. A man is hung from a clothesline.
Inman gets into various bloody gunfights on his journey. He puts a gun to Veasey's head to prevent him from throwing his mistress (who is a slave) into a ravine. He kills plundering Union soldiers who callously lay an woman's infant son in the cold dirt as a way of coercing her into giving them all her food (one also begins raping the woman). A woman helping Inman and Veasey cross a river is shot and she falls out of the boat. A man trains a gun on Inman and Veasey to capture them (they're then seen chained to other deserters and forced to walk back to the front lines). Later, after another gunfight, everyone Inman is chained to is killed, and he's forced to drag their bodies down a hill to survive.
A rooster, a turkey and a goat are butchered for food (the rooster's neck is broken, the turkey is shot and the goat's throat is slit).
Crude or Profane Language
Characters vocalize the s-word seven or eight times as both an expletive and a descriptive term. Milder profanities ("a--," "h---," "d--n") are also occasionally uttered. God's name is interjected a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Inman and Veasey, among others, get roaring drunk on homemade brew. Ada's father has a drink. Ruby derides her dad for his penchant for alcohol ("My daddy, he'd walk 40 miles for liquor, but not 40 inches for kindness").
Other Negative Elements
Veasey waxes eloquent on the subject of his irregularity, bizarrely cross-referencing his physical discomfort with stories from the Old Testament. Inman and another man begin to cut a dead cow into pieces with a two-man lumber saw. Another man vomits.
Decorated director Anthony Minghella has made a career out of creating morally ambiguous, mentally challenging movies. (He wrote and directed both The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley; he served as executive producer for The Quiet American and Iris.) So for me to find myself mired in the intricacies and nuance of Cold Mountain's script wasn't as surprising as it was stimulating—in a combative sort of way. From a purely intellectual and artistic vantage point, the work Minghella creates serves its purpose well. In this latest piece, he coaxes brilliant performances from his stars. His staging is precise yet expressive. His storytelling luxurious and compelling. Even his moral conundrums can prove instructive, but one had better have a fixed, godly worldview through which to filter them in order to survive them. A sampling:
Inman is a Southern deserter. Is he to be commended for abandoning what we now believe to be an unworthy cause? Or is he to be condemned for committing treason against the Confederate States? Does it matter that his motivation has to do with love, and not politics? Is it a mitigating circumstance that he shows respect and kindness to slaves? (He's the hero of the story, so by default, moviegoers will empathize with him, not against him. But there's enough contrary opinion presented that the mental exercise remains intact.)
Is the brutal Home Guard just fulfilling its duty "for God and country" by hunting down deserters and forcefully "keeping the peace" while the other men are at war? Or is it a renegade band of vigilantes obsessed with power and greed? (Minghella shows these guys mostly in a bad light.)
Is Inman and Ada's hasty, unconventional marriage real and does it carry with it God's blessing? Or is it merely a contrivance used to justify sex? (Or is it a way to subtly attempt to remove God from the sacrament altogether?)
Minghella seems never to be satisfied with merely initiating cat-and-mouse mind games, though. He displays an unquenchable thirst for the salacious and the excessive. That translates into him liberally inserting scenes of graphic violence and explicit sex. Hollywood, and many critics who review its work, praise such insertions as artful. In reality, they serve only to push away those mature viewers who are the very ones most interested in soaking up his weighty tales—but are wise enough to refuse to compromise themselves in the process.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jude Law as Inman; Nicole Kidman as Ada Monroe; Renée Zellweger as Ruby; Thewes; Donald Sutherland as Rev. Monroe; Ray Winstone as Teague; Brendan Gleeson as Stobrod Thewes; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Rev. Veasey; Natalie Portman as Sara
Anthony Minghella ( )