Jessica Campbell revisits the 2003 Civil War odyssey Cold Mountain and isolates the beauty of the film’s small moments.
Ah, 2003. The Weinsteins still ran Miramax (which, apparently, they’ll be doing again soon). Writer/director Anthony Minghella was still alive. Nicole Kidman, recently post-divorce, was throwing it all into her movies (as I discussed in my review of The Hours this time last year). Jude Law was not yet known as “the handsome actor who cheated with the nanny” and Renée Zellweger actually had, you know, movie roles. And so aroseCold Mountain.
Minghella, before his untimely death in 2008, had produced Iris (2001) and directed The English Patient (1996) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) with Miramax; after the Weinsteins left the company they founded, he worked with them on Breaking and Entering(2006), Michael Clayton (2007), The Reader (2008), and Nine (2009). He worked with Kidman again as a producer of The Interpreter (2005). Like Cold Mountain, many of these films involved scores by Gabriel Yared and cinematography by John Seale.
All this is simply to say that Cold Mountain, a story of the Civil War South, did not arrive in theatres out of thin air, and I look back on it as an installment in a larger cinematic phenomenon. One, I might add, that was just my cup of tea at the time. These movies were my favorite combination: aesthetically beautiful and extremely serious in subject matter. I felt intuitively then (and believe more firmly now) that you don’t have to be Brechtian or Kafkaesque to convey despair and alienation; there is something particularly acute in the painful contradiction between surface beauty and inner turmoil (see: Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven [http://bit.ly/1a7vE0Y]. Also Mad Men. Also Casablanca. And so forth.). Some find this approach overwrought. Me, I don’t mind a sweeping score. Because, after all, that’s how it feels to you when you’re the one experiencing said inner turmoil. Which, it must be admitted, I was when I saw Cold Mountain. I spent the better part of December 2003 reading Charles Frazier’s novel of the same title and watching my father deteriorate under a brain tumor, and the following month I saw the movie exactly one week before it killed him. So I was doing a lot of crying anyway. This was the year I decided once and for all to devote myself to obsessing about books and movies, on the theory that they, unlike people, could be depended on not to leave me. I was in a tough place. But although Cold Mountain has never held for me in subsequent viewings (of which there have been a small handful over the years) the power it held then, I still think it deserved the accolades it got. There is a lot to this movie, and ten years later, the good still outweighs the bad.
The bad, a sampling:
–Nicole Kidman’s face is never dirty, despite the fact that she’s working a farm and/or starving for much of the movie. C’mon, folks. The woman is a knockout; a little realistic mud will not substantially compromise that.
–The fact that one of the evil characters – perhaps the most evil character – is albino. Do we have to? I get that, unfortunately, many a moviegoer will get an extra whiff of “sinister” from the albino features, but (a) that’s because movies do this, and (b) for my money, any dude who gleefully jumps up and down on a board in order to crush an elderly woman’s hands is bad news regardless of his skin tone; the added physical trait is overkill anyway.
–The brightening up of the ending. The movie is more or less true to the novel, with the usual cuts and Hollywood simplifications. It follows the book in bringing the main action to its tragic conclusion and then providing a short epilogue to show that, nine years later, the surviving protagonists are still living together and doing reasonably all right in the aftermath of the war. But whereas the novel ends on a “Life goes on. Tomorrow is another day” note, well, the last word in the film is “sun.” This is a dark damn movie. No.
Speaking of dark, though, I like the epilogue visually in that its warm, bright colors make me realize how cool and dreary the colors are throughout most of the movie. The movie is visually stunning all the way through; Inman walks through beautiful country to get to equally beautiful Cold Mountain, and people with more technical filmmaking expertise than I have do a lot of raving about the opening battle scene. We get some nice period costumes before war and economic downturn take over. The score has always tugged at me; it’s lovely without getting too lush, and Ada’s main piano theme for years had the power to make me cry.
When I first saw Cold Mountain, it struck me, not surprisingly, as a movie about loss. Which it is, certainly. Loss of loved ones, family, subsistence, property, stability, beauty, comfort, dignity, the list goes on. It’s not entirely unlike Gone With the Wind in that it foregrounds the hardships of Southerners on the home front in the Civil War; heroine Ada Monroe (Kidman) is a rather less egotistical, more subdued version of a Scarlett O’Hara southern belle who suddenly finds herself barely able to survive. Cold Mountain really doesn’t deal with slavery at all (we see small farms, not plantations; nobody in the town of Cold Mountain seems to be that wealthy), and I wouldn’t quarrel with a viewer who objects to that, although for me it works as a story about people who get swept up in bigger conflicts and find themselves losing everything without being entirely sure what they’re losing it for.
At any rate, now it strikes me more as a movie about journeys. Place is a key concern; the title is a place, after all, and half the plot consists of hero Inman (Jude Law) struggling, Odysseus-like, to make his way home from the war. Yes, he wants to be reunited with Ada, but he also speaks explicitly about missing the hills and farms of Cold Mountain (after all, he has known them all his life; unlike Ada, whom he barely knows at all – but more on that later). Like many a journey narrative, Inman’s is a metaphor for life, of course. He has a destination in mind, encounters various problems and people (sometimes they are the same) along the way, and ultimately dies. He’s under the threat of death the whole time, since he has decided to cut out of the war before it’s come to an end. Whereas his journey is to keep moving, Ada’s is to keep standing. Kidman’s Ada is a lot less flashy than Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, but she still displays quite a transformation from complacent and refined to helpless to capable. At the very beginning of the movie, before the war breaks out, she’s the accomplished, fairly well-to-do daughter of a preacher (Donald Sutherland) just moving in to a new church at Cold Mountain. Pretty soon, though, the war has broken out, her father has suddenly died, and all the men have gone off to fight, except for a handful of ne’er-do-wells (led by Ray Winstone and the evil albino) who have taken to calling themselves the Home Guard but mostly bully and threaten people. Ada is on the verge of starving to death when her kindly neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker) directs her way a young woman named Ruby (Renée Zellweger). It’s about 50 minutes into the movie when Zellweger arrives, and she comes as a breath of fresh air. Everything picks up. She’s capable, proactive, no-nonsense, and funny as hell. Zellweger, incidentally, took home the one Oscar the apparently Weinstein-weary Academy voters were willing to give the film; to say she deserved it is an understatement. Ruby has had her fair share of experience with hardship and mistreatment long before the war, having been neglected and beaten as a child by her father, Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson, who ultimately resurfaces and is to some extent redeemed). Ruby won’t take excuses from anyone. She forces (and teaches) Ada to do real farmwork. Of the war, she says, “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’” It’s appropriate to Ruby, and it’s a good reminder in a movie that might otherwise feel bogged down by a sense of fate. Particularly because of a touch that I don’t think came from Frazier’s novel (I don’t remember it being in the novel and didn’t see it on a cursory page-through; apologies if I’m wrong, and please correct me): Sally persuades Ada to participate in a folk tradition by gazing into her well, backwards, via a hand mirror. What she sees there is supposed to be prophetic. Urbane Ada is of course a skeptic, but since Sally has been kind to her, she humors her. She is extremely shaken to see an image that looks for all the world like Inman, surrounded by a flock of crows, walking toward her and falling. Over the course of the movie, as the prospect of Ada and Inman’s happiness rises and falls, Ada interprets this vision differently. When he returns to Cold Mountain and they are briefly reunited, she happily concludes that she must have misinterpreted; really, she had seen him walking back to her. But hold your horses, Ada – later the same day, she can only watch in horror as Inman, shot by the albino, does, after all, walk toward her with a flock of crows and fall down into the snow. The well didn’t lie, and Ada’s first interpretation turned out to be right. The movie makes no particular attempt to account for the accuracy of the prophecy; instead, the viewer is left to feel that on some level they were star-crossed lovers after all.
So it feels like the journey’s bad end is preordained. After all, much of what happens along the way is bad. The Home Guard men get more and more dangerous, and Inman lurches from one crisis to another. But I believe now that the key to the movie comes in a very early scene, before Inman has fully made up his mind to leave the war hospital he’s been in since the battle at Vicksburg and make a run for home. He chats with a blind peanut vendor who insists that no, he wouldn’t want to have his sight back for just ten minutes because “having a thing and then the loss” is too painful – at which point Inman replies, “Then we don’t agree. There’s not much I wouldn’t give for ten minutes of someplace.” Or, the astute interlocutor adds, “someone.” This conversation prefigures exactly what happens over the course of the movie, and it suggests that Inman is entirely willing to make the wager he makes. He knows perfectly well that he will be in trouble as a deserter even on the off chance he makes it back to Cold Mountain and Ada. But unlike the peanut vendor, who would rather not risk a move that might make him feel his loss even more keenly, Inman figures that taking the chance of getting even the smallest taste of what he wants is worth the risk of pain or failure.
The small and ephemeral. This brings me to the love story, which I experience entirely differently now than I did at sixteen (shockingly). Ten years ago, never having been in love or really had any romantic relationship to speak of, (a) I was a believer in Love Conquers All, but/and (b) I was annoyed by fictional relationships that did not seem to be based on anything. Item (a) I’ve regretfully abandoned altogether, and I’ve eased up a bit on item (b), having become aware of the Instant Irrational Attraction and Disproportionate Behavior Arising Therefrom. Cold Mountain appealed to me ten years ago as an epic near-instance of item (a), although I was a little bothered by the fact that it seemed to stem from an item (b)-esque scenario. But now I see it in the opposite way. It’s not really an epic romance at all. On the contrary, it’s a self-aware instance of item (b). When Inman goes off to war, Ada and Inman have exchanged very few words, a couple of pictures, a book, and one kiss. Their relationship is based on almost nothing. But they talk about the fact that it’s based on nothing, unlike most movie romancers. When they finally reunite near the end, Ada demurs when Inman credits her with having kept him from losing hope. “We barely knew each other. A few moments.” But Inman has learned a lot about the value of moments. “They’re like a bag of tiny diamonds glittering in a black heart. Don’t matter if they’re real or things I made up.” And really, it doesn’t matter at all. When you’re floundering, you have to cling to something. It doesn’t have to be an epic, full-fledged, well-rounded, well-adjusted romantic relationship (thank goodness). It was a little thing, but that was a hell of a lot better than nothing. Similarly, Inman had reflected earlier (while under the roof of delightful zen goat woman Eileen Atkins) on the arbitrary nature of place names, noting that the coves and ridges near Cold Mountain had Native American names long before the ones he knew. “How can a name not even the real name break your heart? It’s her, she’s the place I’m heading. And I hardly know her. So how can a person who’s maybe not even a real person…” (here he drifts off to sleep). Well, even though it isn’t the “real” name, it does still break his heart to read about Cold Mountain. And even though he hardly knows Ada, it does get him through the war to think of her as his goal, just as it gets her through the war to hope that he is coming back. Yes, it’s all arbitrary and small and not enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing, or that we’re necessarily better off like the peanut vendor, turning down a short-lived joy because it is short-lived. (I say this as someone who has always tended toward the peanut vendor’s point of view.)
Inman’s half of the story, in particular, amounts to the stringing together of moments. The vignettes are positively star-studded (Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Jena Malone, Giovanni Ribisi, and Cillian Murphy cycle in and out) and keep the journey from feeling monotonous (like, say, the Frodo and Sam sections of The Two Towersand The Return of the King, if you’re a less rabid Lord of the Rings fan than I). But the encounter that was and is for me the most striking is the one with Sara (Portman). Roger Ebert, in an uncharacteristically dense comment I’ve always remembered, wrote of this scene, “Nothing takes the suspense out of Boy Meets Girl like your knowledge that Boy Has Already Met Star” (I checked this online to make sure I had the wording right; you can see the full review here). Apparently Ebert thought this scene was about potential romance. But wow, it’s not. Quick refresher: Inman knocks on Sara’s door for charity on a rainy night; a widow alone with a feverish baby, she tentatively lets him in, gives him some food and some clothes of her late husband’s, and points him to the corn crib as a bed for the night. Before long, she gets up and asks him to come in and sleep next to her in bed without doing anything else. He agrees, and so they lie down together, he holding her and looking serious while she cries. The next morning, just as Inman leaves, a small group of Union soldiers bursts into Sara’s home all set to rape her, probably kill the baby, and take the last of her farm animals (and, thereby, the last of her sustenance). But Inman comes back, and together he and Sara manage to trick and kill the two most aggressive soldiers. The third and youngest (Cillian Murphy), seems more hungry than vicious and hesitates throughout the whole operation; Inman, having seen this, lets him go. But before he gets far, Sara appears in the doorway with a rifle and shoots him dead.
For me, this scene holds up best out of everything in the movie, I think because it develops slowly, unexpectedly, and with a healthy dose of moral ambiguity. The night is an oasis for both Inman and Sara – both of them in their separate ways have spent months barely a step ahead of starvation, violent death, duplicity, loss of loved ones, and, in Sara’s case, rape. This encounter could have gone sideways for either of them; it’s no surprise to see them both edging very cautiously around each other, manifestly on the alert up to and, really, including the final rapprochement. Ebert must have been around Hollywood too long, thinking Beautiful Male Star + Beautiful Female Star had to mean romance. Sex is present in this scene as a threat, not as a goal. Sara is obviously concerned about rape from the beginning, and even Inman had had sex used as a weapon against him in the vignette in which he was lured into captivity and then turned over to the authorities by Giovanni Ribisi and his harem. Even setting aside the fact that Inman is preoccupied with Ada and Sara with her dead husband, the encounter between them is very broadly about trust – about keeping alive the possibility that people can actually coexist and even comfort each other in such a violent and uncertain world.
Meanwhile, I had actually forgotten that Sara ends up shooting the more-decent Yankee soldier the following morning. Inman mostly looks tired when he sees what she has done. The scene ends without our seeing them talk about what happened. How’s a viewer to feel? Glad that Inman and Sara both get out of the confrontation unscathed, certainly, though the feverish baby probably isn’t long for this world after a prolonged stint on the cold ground. Glad that the two soldiers who seemed to enjoy the raping and pillaging are punished. But what about the Cillian Murphy soldier? You really can’t blame Sara for shooting him, since she doesn’t see the moments we do of him protesting and trying to cover up the baby. Her number one concern is ensuring her son’s safety, and that’s what she does . Inman was going to let the soldier go, presumably because he’s seen too much killing already and has contended with a considerable amount of gnawing hunger himself lately. Murphy is good in this very small role; you can imagine a different movie with him as a protagonist. Not a perfect protagonist, but just as worthy as anyone in Cold Mountain. This scene is the most striking example of the many instances in the movie in which you aren’t quite sure whom you’re rooting for and may change your mind along the way. Everything is uncertainty and flux. In one strange moment in the scene, the viewer is actually tricked along with one of the Union soldiers into thinking the other one is in the act of raping Sara, only to learn with him that she’s fake-crying, the raping soldier is already just a dead body, and Inman is around the corner waiting to kill the soldier whose perspective we’re sharing. This doesn’t change the fact that you definitely root for Inman and Sara in this scene, but it amplifies the sense of ambiguity.
Similar muddlings happen in Ada’s story. I mentioned earlier that Ruby’s father, Stobrod, is arguably redeemed (and, regardless, accepted into the family fold as we see it in the nine-years-later epilogue). Teague, the leader of the evil Home Guard (and Evil Albino’s boss), shows some humanity by responding to music and having a hard time executing Stobrod’s friend and fellow musician. I don’t think the movie wants us to reconsider Teague altogether, but it certainly gains in realism by avoiding portraying these men as unmitigated cookie-cutter villains. Then, of course, we have Ada’s series of opposing interpretations of the vision she sees in Sally’s well. I said I thought this movie ended up being about journeys: the longer you’re on a journey, the more twists and turns you’re bound to run into. Inman might as well be three different people over the course of this movie: the boy who leaves Cold Mountain, the man who leaves the war to go home to his love, and the man who has passed through a lifetime’s worth of strange encounters but can’t quite seem to make it to the end of the road. I like Jude Law very much in this role because he doesn’t overplay any of these iterations.
Uncertainty, chaos, human error, and violence. That’s what we get the most of in Cold Mountain. An epic love story doesn’t really sit well with that. (Or maybe it can only do so if it has a really epic score – I’m looking at you, Maurice Jarre circa Doctor Zhivago). If you don’t want to like Cold Mountain, you could see it as a failed attempt to present an epic love story in the throes of chaos. I do want to like this movie, for all the nostalgic reasons provided above. And I do. Is it a little too pretty? Maybe. But it’s more aware of its own possible limitations than I realized the first time around. And I’ll be damned if I’ll ever believe beauty and soul-shattering pain and chaos can’t exist side-by-side. Outside of real life, I’ve rarely seen them juxtaposed as strikingly as they are here.