The Confederate Patient

Cold Mountain

The key to understanding the chief failure of Cold Mountain can be found by watching Jack White. Yes, Jack White of The White Stripes. He has a small but essential role in the epic Civil War romance, as a Confederate-army-deserting musician named Georgia.

For the moment, ignore that he can’t wipe the grin off his face. (Look, Meg! I’m in a movie! A prestige picture! Sure to win multiple Oscars!) At a key juncture in the film, he and his two companions eat an animal that they found frozen. Georgia gets sick, leaving his companions for a few minutes. It’s then that Teague, the heavy in the town of Cold Mountain, and his goons come upon the camp and wake up Georgia’s friends. The bad guys, who’ve been killing deserters and torturing their families (hiss! hiss!), start questioning the drowsy pair, at which point the stupid deserter says, “Where’s Georgia?” And of course, because the goons don’t know that he means Georgia the person rather than Georgia the state, White’s character is allowed to escape.

Georgia’s survival keeps the plot slogging along toward the climactic and inevitable confrontation between Teague and the film’s lover protagonists. What’s crucial to understand is how many things in the paragraph above conspire to ensure the final standoff. The meat has to be bad so Georgia can get sick, and Georgia has to be named Georgia so there can be confusion about how many deserters are in the camp. If one of those things isn’t there, the movie’s artlessly constructed plot disintegrates.

Every element of Cold Mountain — from plot points to names to lines of dialogue — shows the heavy hand of the writer. The plot doesn’t unfold naturally and from the characters; for the story to turn out the way it does, for it to achieve any sort of resonance, everything in the movie has to happen exactly as it happens, and most of the developments are matters of dumb luck. Some might call it fate — and that mystical element is invoked — but that’s bullshit; it’s just lazy writing.

The movie was directed and adapted from the Charles Frazier novel by Anthony Minghella (he of The English Patient), and it’s far from a disaster. It nails the texture of the period and the war, and because of its brutal portrayal of the realities of life in and around the Civil War, Cold Mountain is frequently compelling, gripping, horrifying, and affecting.

But it’s not a great, or even very good, movie. The central love story is silly, and Minghella knows it, or he wouldn’t have thrown in dialogue in which the lovers explain that although they barely know each other, each moment they spent together was like a diamond, gleaming and beautiful and forever. And Minghella also knows this bit is overripe, or he wouldn’t have had another character mock the lovers’ gibberish.

The basic story: Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) fall in love after her arrival in Cold Mountain, and then he leaves to fight in the Civil War. After getting shot and sent to an infirmary, Inman leaves the hospital and deserts the army, walking many miles and encountering danger at every turn in his quest to return to Ada.

One can envision three ways this story will turn out: (1) Inman and Ada will reunite and live happily ever after; (2) Inman and Ada will reunite briefly before one of them is killed; and (3) Inman or Ada will die just moments before their reunion. Smart people will eliminate the third option as too cruel and ironic and the first as incongruous, but even with all three options open, there’s little suspense in Inman’s journey. Mostly, I was wondering how the hell he was going to get out of the chains that bound him to a bunch of dead deserters. (And the movie never does say.)

So you have a central love story that’s incredible and underdeveloped, and a plot heavily manipulated to achieve a guaranteed reunion against all odds. That would be forgivable if the characters were interesting, but they’re not. Ada is an educated rich girl whose farm falls into disrepair after her daddy dies, and she’s rescued by the sharp-tongued and spunky Ruby (Renée Zellweger), who teaches her to build fences and survive with her hands and without the help of a man. (It doesn’t help that Ada, even on her worst day, is still glamorous with perfect hair, and it’s sad that Kidman didn’t — or wasn’t allowed to — shed her vanity for the role.) Inman is stoic and brooding and noble and pure and cipherious and dull, although he touches a woman’s bare ass once when she bends over and spreads for him. The villains are all sneering evil, particularly Charlie Hunnam, who seems to be channeling Gary Busey’s gleeful malevolence. And Giovanni Ribisi and Philip Seymour Hoffman can’t do a thing with their stereotypes of backwoods trash and lecherous, oily preacher, respectively.

With all that said, something major still works in Cold Mountain, and it is the Civil War. Starving soldiers from both sides wander the countryside, stealing from and raping frightened innocents. People harbor deserters at grave risk, because they have neighbors such as Teague. (The movie makes an interesting argument that the South is essentially at war with itself.) The Southern economy grinds to a halt, and women, children, and old men are left to tend the farmsteads, because the strong men are all at war.

It’s a great, grim setting, beautifully executed, but it’s relegated to the background. Using the basic Titanic structure, Minghella and Frazier focus on a personal tale that’s far less compelling than what’s behind it. I’d have much rather spent two and a half hours with the family of Sally Swanger (Kathy Baker, in the film’s best performance), who had to choose between her family and the Confederacy, paid dearly, and emerged silently and sadly with dignity.

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