The picture vividly depicts an America consumed by violence and ferocious behavior, with the country's men celebrating the official start of the war as if their football team made it to the playoffs. Director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) doesn't refrain from showing vicious chaos, with unspeakable horrors infiltrating every aspect and strain of American life. People of all classes, whether living in a big plantation or a cabin in the woods, are victimized, and while the film does have a central love story, the movie is as much about barbarity as the pursuit of romance.
Cold Mountain is the Civil War movie antidote to this year's bombastic Gods and Generals, which is easily one of the worst films of 2003. While that film was a whitewashed depiction of the war as a glorious moment of triumph in American history, Cold Mountain seems determined to depict the plague of violence brought on by the clash as a historical low point. This results in a film that is often unpleasant to watch, and very unsettling. This ain't no Gone With the Wind.
The story unwinds in nonlinear fashion. Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), who has taken a mean wound to the neck in battle, returns cross-country to Cold Mountain, where Ada (Nicole Kidman), a woman he barely knew but undeniably loved before shipping out, awaits his return. Inman's journey is essentially an episodic tour of hell where he is pursued as a deserter, witnessing treacherous forms of violence and betrayal along the way.
Meanwhile, Ada, raised delicately by her preacher father (Donald Sutherland), is stunned by her dad's sudden death and must learn how to maintain a farm and survive the country's downward spiral into savagery. She is assisted by local character Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who twists the head off of a chicken minutes within meeting her. Together, the two women endure the surprise of Ruby's long lost father's (Brendan Gleeson) return and heartless attacks on their homeland by the murderous Teague (Ray Winstone), who hunts deserters and those who shelter them.
The film offers big casting surprises at every turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as an immoral preacher about to murder a slave woman he has impregnated. His disgraced character provides a short intermission of strange comic relief before meeting his ugly fate. As a backwoods Southerner selling out deserters, Giovanni Ribisi properly utilizes his trademark weirdness as an absolute creep. Most notable is Natalie Portman as a widowed mother painfully yearning for a night of companionship. While Portman's screen time is short, her performance is one of the film's most powerful.
Other casting surprises include musician Jack White of The White Stripes as Zellweger's love interest, and Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later (which also starred Gleeson) as a federal raider.
A lack of chemistry between Kidman and Law is more attributable to their characters' lack of time together rather than their inability to generate heat. That they are awkward together is totally appropriate: Inman and Ada are barely afforded the chance to know one another, which gives the film a mark of sadness. Zellweger virtually disappears into her role, which feels a bit hammy at first, but is a bold turn nonetheless.
While the film has its share of loveliness, Minghella doesn't ignore the horrors that were on display in Frazier's novel. Cold Mountain is an ugly movie, and it should be.