Friday, August 3, 2012

Cold Mountain Is Another Sad Southern Perspective On The Civil War

The Good: Peripheral characters and actors
The Bad: Dull leads, Boring story, Pacing
The Basics: Worthwhile only for the peripheral characters and actors, Cold Mountain is a long, disappointing Southern Civil War story.

Have you ever noticed how the majority of movies on the American Civil War take place from the Southern perspective? It's almost as if the South is obsessed with the Civil War and their loss that they just cannot get over it. Instead, they seek to recapture something from that time. Cold Mountain recaptures the oppression and ruthlessness of the South as it rebelled against the North.

In the little town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, little southern belle Ada Monroe waits for her love Inman to return to her. While she waits, her home is menaced by Home Guard, the Southerners who didn't go off to fight "Northern Aggression" and instead stayed home and harassed the locals. Ada is aided by the appearance of Ruby Thewes, who helps her out around her property in exchange for room and board. Inman, for his part, becomes mortified by the killing on the front lines and heads home in a weird odyssey that is nowhere near as entertaining as, say, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Cold Mountain suffers, first and foremost, by its cast. Jude Law, as appealing as he is supposed to be, is exceptionally bland and a pretty terrible actor. He wasn't charismatic in A.I. (reviewed here!), he's only vaguely interesting here. In fact, of the main three in the cast, Law is the high point. When he journey's home and looks rugged and bearded and un-Jude Law-like, his acting ability comes out and he is able to deliver some performances that are respectable, most notably the subtlety of his scene near the end where he turns back toward the road (to reveal more of the scene would expose more of the plot than you should know).

It is always a mystery to me how Best Supporting Actress is chosen. Rene Zellweger won the award for her performance in this and I was left thinking she had Kim Bassinger Syndrome. KBS is a rare affliction whereby an actress with a minimal role in a film somehow is granted great recognition for the role, when it was relatively minor (like Kim Bassinger's role in L.A. Confidential). My personal belief is that Zellweger won solely on the strength of her delivery of the "rain speech;" for the rest of the film she is so distantly behind Kidman and Law that "Supporting Actress" is something of an overstatement. If you're disturbed by Zellweger's squinting and whining, this is not the movie for you. Her brief performance includes one or both in every frame.

Kidman rounds out the main cast playing the dull and uninspired Ada who is only of real interest so long as her father (played well by Donald Sutherland) is in the flick. Kidman's character has little character and Kidman's performance is weakened by the fact that - as a weak character - she must play off other people to define herself. As a result, much of Kidman's performance is simply reacting, not actually imbuing the character with, well, character.

In contrast to the dull, plodding main characters and the uninspired performances by the leads, the supporting cast is pretty wonderful with a great array of actual characters. The always-wonderful Brendan Gleeson plays Ruby's father and as a credit to his acting ability, manages to portray him without even a hint of his 28 Days Later character. Gleeson reminds us how good character actors can be.

Supporting the film as well are Ethan Suplee, as the tragic Pangle, Jack White, as the musician Georgia, Kathy Baker as Sally - a role that redeems her tired performance as "hook lady" from Boston Public, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Reverend Veasey - a fugitive to accompany Inman, and Donald Sutherland as Reverend Monroe. These characters are each more interesting than the main three and quite well-portrayed by their respective actors. Kathy Baker, for example, plays exceptionally well outside the special effects to make her pallor and near-death quite vivid and real.

But so much of Cold Mountain hinges on plot and it's not terribly compelling. After the first group of people are tormented or killed for harboring deserters or being a deserter, we understand how harsh the Home Guard is. The repetition of it simply fills time and delays the obvious conclusion to the movie. And the serious problem is that those characters we care the most for are so briefly in the movie before they are snuffed out.

It's basically a "soldier makes his way home from war and encounters obstacles" film. And intermingled with that is a "women at home fighting in their own way" story. The latter story suffers because the women are not interesting or particularly strong; indeed, Ada is almost entirely defined by her waiting for Inman and thus seeks her definition from a man. Consequently, the other half suffers because it does not take long before the viewer begins to wonder, "Why is Inman working so hard to get home to such a dull woman?" And Inman's own lack of genuine personality is confusing as well. We have a dull man determined to make it home to a woman who defines herself based on him, resulting in a cyclical motion of complete boredom.

Blood and guts fans will enjoy the battle scenes and Cold Mountain sadly has a scene of rural living involving the exsanguination of a goat that is very realistic and almost more tragic than the human costs of the movie. In short, though, this is a tired, tiresome movie, without anything truly new and led by characters and actors that were overpaid for their performances they failed to deliver on.

For other works featuring Natalie Portman, check out my reviews of:
No Strings Attached
Black Swan
The Other Woman
The Darjeeling Limited
V For Vendetta
The Star Wars Saga


Check out how this film stacks up against other films I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the reviews are organized best film to worst!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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