THE REASON I checked out of "24," the intriguing Fox network series, was that the show suffered from Sudden Supporting Character Death Syndrome. Every interesting supporting character--the policewoman with the Macy Gray hair, the girl from "Roseanne"--was dispatched, often in a grisly manner, and normally right after the audience developed a strand of attachment to them. At first, this penchant for killing peripheral characters seemed laudable--the writers at "24" saying, "Hey, we're not messing around here! The stakes are high and people die!"
But after a while the trick became predictable, and we could see there was no reason to care about secondary characters because we knew they'd be worm food after the next commercial break.
This same affliction ravages "Cold Mountain" for the better part of two and a half hours, draining a story about love, fidelity, and the moral depredations of war of all tension and dramatic momentum. What is left is a husk and, for the viewer, the uncomfortable feeling of having been patted down by a grifter.
THE BUNKO MAN at work is Anthony Minghella. Renowned for bringing middle-brow literature to the screen, Minghella won a Best Director Oscar some years ago for Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient." Since then he's made only one other movie, a beautiful, empty adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in 1999. Now he's taken on Charles Frazier's National Book Award-winning sensation, "Cold Mountain," to similar effect.
For those unfamiliar with the book, "Cold Mountain" is a retelling (in Hollywood it's called, delightfully, a "reimagining") of "The Odyssey." Set mostly in the waning months of the Civil War, our hero is W.P. Inman (played by Jude Law) who, immediately prior to setting off to serve the Confederacy, had fallen in love with the preacher's daughter in his native town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Inman and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) write letters to one another, never knowing whether these love notes are being delivered. The War of Northern Aggression is hard on them both.
Inman sees firsthand the devastation of war, and for his trouble is nearly killed in battle. Miss Ada sees the carnage secondhand as she watches Cold Mountain's economy collapse and the town fall under the control of the murderous and corrupt Home Guard. Starving, poor, and fearing for her life, she writes to Inman asking him to lay down his arms and come home to her. Inman, receiving her letter while lying in a hospital bed, sets out to do just that.
Along the way Inman encounters all manner of interesting characters--most of whom end up shot in the face, QED. "Cold Mountain" the movie differs from "Cold Mountain" the book most notably by excising references to its classical Greek heritage, but also by demystifying Inman. Instead of the white shaman Frazier envisioned, Law's Inman is the strong, silent, and sensitive type, a hybrid of Ann Coulter and Maureen Dowd's ideal mates.
This is no knock on Law, who seems to have the mind of a character actor in the body of a leading man (making him the anti-Kevin Spacey). In truth, the cinematic Inman is better and more endearing than his literary twin.
The other performances are less sturdy. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in rare poor form, gives a study in ham and cheese as a wayward, constipated minister who travels with Inman for a time. (Hoffman, of course, can be forgiven anything after what he's done in the last few years: Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous," his P.T. Anderson roles, and his note-perfect turn as Freddie Miles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley.") Natalie Portman, finally free of the shackles of ILM, plays a lonely confederate widow. Sadly, she shows just a shadow of her former promise.
Back at the homestead, Nicole Kidman continues her tour through contemporary American literature. Just six weeks ago she appeared miscast as Southern white-trash in "The Human Stain." She is equally out of place in "Cold Mountain." The lone bright spot is Renée Zellweger as Ruby Thewes, a farmhand who comes to live with Ms. Ada. Zellweger's Ruby is buoyant and real. When she's onscreen, "Cold Mountain" almost feels as if it has a soul.
BUT FOR THE MOST PART, "Cold Mountain" is a hollow enterprise, using tricks to trigger our sympathies, instead of appealing to them honestly. Minghella wants us to feel sorrow and loss, so he massacres his supporting cast. He wants us to be against the institution of war, so he marches out legions of cruel and corrupt soldiers and tosses buckets of gore. And despite all this, he wants us to exit the theater feeling hopeful, so he ends with treacle. All moviemaking is the process of pushing emotional buttons, but Minghella does so neither artfully nor subtly.
Compounding the problem is the suspicion that all this emotional manipulation is the meta level of a more near-at-hand manipulation. One gets the sense that Minghella is attempting to create a movie designed not for audiences, but for Oscar consideration. Prestige actors with Academy track records? Check. Literary pedigree? Check. Epic canvas? Check. Tragic second and third acts, but an epilogue designed to maximize box office prospects? Check. Studio backing from Miramax? Check.
No doubt Minghella will achieve this goal--"Cold Mountain" is as close to a sure thing as there is for a Best Picture nomination. But it may leave you feeling a bit used.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.