There’s No Ism Like Cretinism: Barbarian Invasions, Cold Mountain, and The Cooler

remyMore than a week has elapsed since I attended the press screenings for Anthony Minghella’s eagerly anticipated Cold Mountain, Denys Arcand’s less than keenly awaited Barbarian Invasions, and a piece of schlock titled The Cooler. The last of these represents the directorial debut of one Wayne Kramer, whose slick, derivative style smacks of and belongs on late-night television.

I hated all three of these movies and have dreaded writing about them. In good conscience, however, I can shirk the duty no longer. Cold Mountain at least offers the pleasure of Renée Zellweger in a fine performance. The other two have nothing, and they have it in spades.

Let’s start with the Arcand. Barbarian Invasions, as you all know by now, is a sequel to the writer-director’s trifling 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire. I remember almost nothing about Empire, and I look forward to the day when this new film will have receded completely from my memory.

A withering critique (if little else) of Canada’s healthcare system, the Montréal-set Invasions depicts a typical hospital as a gallery of horrors. Gurneys cruise through narrow halls at breakneck pace as various ill and injured grotesques look on from the sidelines, apparently waiting for medication or to audition for a remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks. Wires dangle from ceilings, creating an uneasy climate of industrial rot. Doctors and nurses carry the wrong charts and have no idea who is whom among their patients. The robotic administrators respond only to bribes, and the unionized maintenance workers are uniformly extortionist creeps whose French-Canadian accents sound suspiciously like Southern drawls. Arcand has targeted hospital hell before, better and more succinctly in Jesus of Montréal, the only good film he’s ever made.

In the cramped, tenebrious infirmary, we meet the 60-something Rémy (played by Rémy Girard) a retired history professor who has terminal cancer. A self-described “sensual socialist” (i.e. an old lech with a streak of buffoonery a mile wide) Rémy reunites and tries to make peace with his estranged son Sébastien, a bland capitalist portrayed by the equally bland actor Stéphane Rousseau. These early scenes of father-son clashes are poorly composed, straight-on close-up shots of heads screaming. (Where did Arcand learn this technique?) Rémy’s ex-wife Louise is on hand as well, and the two trade sitcom barbs about his legendary womanizing. (Investigating Rémy’s house, Louise notes to a friend, “With luck, we’ll find some panties.”)

sebastienSébastien, who flashes wads of filthy lucre all over this death chamber of a hospital in order to buy daddy dearest some dignity and privacy in his last weeks, soon strikes a pact with a heroin dealer to ease pa-pa’s pain by means of handy narcotics, and moreover he rounds-up most of the cast from Decline of the American Empire for cozy visits. And it’s on the heels of these exciting developments that we’re subject to the blisteringly inane dialogue that makes Barbarian Invasions such a self-congratulatory cop-out.

For penning the following treats, Arcand was handed the best screenplay prize at Cannes this year. “Abundance has its charms, dearie,” Rémy quips to one of his innumerable lady friends. “Not in foreign affairs,” she retorts, to the collective chortling of their mutual chums—all guffawing in lockstep as if someone had landed le mot juste. Elsewhere, Rémy laments, “Oh, the rivers of sperm I spilled dreaming over her thighs.” A fading femme exclaims, “The last thing I want is a limp-dicked sentimentalist—I want to be screwed forcefully!” The heroin supplier warns Sébastien: “You should never trust a junkie; they make a habit of lying,” which is grammatically incorrect in addition to being a cliché. Last but certainly not least, Rémy and his friends, who view themselves as charter members of the intellectual vanguard, reel off a list of their assorted pet causes from the preceding decades. “What ism haven’t we embraced,” one of them finally asks, “except cretinism?”

Barbarian Invasions embraces cretinism, all right. In the film’s final section, Rémy, his old friends, his son, and the gloomy heroin girl (played by Cannes best actress winner Marie-Josée Croze, who’s best described as a cut-rate Ally Sheedy) retreat to the idyllic country house where much of Empire took place. Perched on the porch, the aging boomers bemoan the death of intelligence in our culture and the death of civility and manners in everyday discourse. For reasons known only to God, Arcand segues this pseudo-serious lament into a campfire scene wherein the privileged cognoscenti josh one another with endless jokes about blowjobs.

Rémy and friends are supercilious idiots who want to wallow in carnality while feeling smugly superior to it. Arcand seems to set his players up to satirize them, but instead he shares their desperate trendiness. Arcand lets them off the hook. It’s as if Buñuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie had pulled up a chair to the table, allowing his targets to finish a meal in peace and joining them. Arcand pulls up a chair to his group of oafish lumps. His movie says, “See? Aren’t us liberals just a big gooey pack of closet conformists who are out to get laid?”

The Barbarian Invasions is a travesty. I have no doubt that it will nab an Oscar for best foreign-language film.


With that out of my system, let’s move on to Cold Mountain and The Cooler, both of which belong to a sub-genre we’ll call The Cinema of Anguished Screams. Fans of depravity and sadism won’t feel cheated here. The filmmakers pile on brutal violence at quasi-regular intervals, and then there are the blood-curdling howls. First, we hear the tormented cries that issue forth from pummeled bodies, and just when we think we’ve heard enough hyper-realistic representations of agony, there’s a second round of prolonged anguished screams to chase the first. Is so much faked suffering safe for the soul?

Director Minghella is guiltier than the novice Wayne Kramer, if only because Cold Mountain lasts nearly an hour longer than The Cooler.

I haven’t read the Charles Frazier novel that Minghella adapts, so I cannot say exactly how Minghella messes it up or if the source offered much to work with in the first place. What is clear is that Cold Mountain is a fiasco, an ineptly paced and structured film that unmasks Minghella’s previous endeavor, The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a lucky fluke. Alone in this though I may be, I consider Ripley to be a largely unsung masterpiece, one of the few genuinely great films to emerge from the cinematic wasteland of the 1990s. Cold Mountain reunites Minghella with the same production crew he had for Ripley; his new film, however, feels as trite, clunky and ham-fisted as Ripley was startling, elegant and disturbingly precise.

Cold Mountain has more in common with The English Patient (which I didn’t like either) in its lumbering uncertainty and in an easy willingness to use torture to make us rise emotionally. Minghella equates sympathy and pleasure as touchstones for annihilation, or maybe he’s only following Frazier’s footsteps. In either case, the writer-director repeatedly sets up his characters as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery. If someone has a good time or does something to lift others’ spirits, you can be sure in Minghella’s unsubtle universe that the unlucky so-and-so’s will be wiped out in the most obvious, heavy-handed broadsides conceivable. Musicians, infants, kid goats, and frontier families get the worst of it.

The problems actually begin as soon as the actors open their mouths. One of my pet peeves, as a native Southerner, is the inability of most actors in Southern roles to develop a credible accent. What most Yankees and foreigners don’t realize is that there are several accents from region to region, not just one universal drawl. For example, Nicole Kidman is supposed to be playing a belle from Charleston, Miss Ada Monroe, yet her vocal mannerisms are pure Tennessee white trash. In her opening voice-over, Kidman sounds as if she’s still in Human Stain Faunia Farley mode, and I thought, this is going to be a long 2 ½ hours. It was; Kidman, nonetheless, improves gradually even as her accent wanders.


Jude Law, on the other hand, is a disaster from start to finish. Law approaches the Southern accent by flattening everything out. He pronounces cider as “sodder,” and standing soaked on a rainy night, he refuses to enter Kidman’s parlor because he’s “wetter than a feesh.” There’s a deeper issue with Inman, the Confederate deserter whom Law portrays, than merely an inept dialect coach. Inman isn’t a character. He has no distinguishing traits. Why are we watching him on his violent, sordid journey home as opposed to watching someone, anyone else? The Cold Mountain press kit quotes Law as saying Inman “. . . is very much an Everyman, the eyes and ears of the audience.” And that’s exactly what’s wrong. Law, fascinating as a character actor in supporting roles, comes a cropper in this generic, emptied-out, leading man non-entity. The flavorless Inman is so much an Everyman that he isn’t anybody at all. Expecting us to watch a department store mannequin slog through the hell of Civil War in such graphic detail, when there’s really nothing at stake in terms of someone or something to care about, is a bit much to ask, isn’t it?

Even the minor roles are miscast or misdirected. That old-pro Donald Sutherland, as Kidman’s reverend papa-daddy, sounds just as stage-Southern as can be. Kathy Baker’s neurotic vocal rhythms are too oddly contemporary for her to convince as a mid-19th-century farmwoman. Baker seems to have wandered through the looking-glass into 1860s North Carolina from her analyst’s couch on the Upper West Side. More embarrassing still, the usually reliable Jena Malone, a rock-steady presence in the excellent Donnie Darko and the sublime Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, overacts wildly in a mere 90-seconds of screen time. No sooner are we introduced to Malone’s swamp rat rowboat girl than she’s shot dead. Talk about thankless.

Just as it appears that Cold Mountain will be the Heaven’s Gate of our time, along arrives Renée Zellweger as Ruby Thewes, a scrappy, industrious tomboy who helps Kidman learn to survive on a farm after the debutante’s father and money are gone with the wind. Zellweger brings some urgently needed comic relief; she gives this bloated, out-of-control film some energy and spunk; and most impressively, she nails a Southern accent with bulls-eye accuracy. (But then she is a native Texan.) In Chicago, Zellweger’s Roxie was on-screen entirely too much. In Cold Mountain, Zellweger’s Ruby isn’t on nearly enough.

The scenes of the two women working the farm are the film’s best. Zellweger and Kidman make perfect screen partners. Zellweger brings out qualities in Kidman that no one else has. Kidman relaxes around her and seems surer of herself. (Kidman hasn’t totally inhabited any role since The Others. She needs to play strong women again and knock it off with these gossamer daisies.) Minghella misses it, of course, but there’s more going on between Ada and Ruby than between Ada and Inman. Two starkly beautiful scenes illustrate this. In the first, an almost unbearably sexy moment, the women are in bed together reading aloud from Wuthering Heights. (Kidman and Zellweger should share a bed more often—at least in the movies.) In the second, Ada and Ruby sit quietly listening to a fiddle player’s serenade on Christmas Eve. Ada observes Ruby’s unspoken attraction to one of the musicians (Jack White). Wordlessly and without fuss, Ada loosens a bracelet from her own wrist and clasps it on Ruby. There is no lovelier, more compassionate gesture anywhere to be found in Cold Mountain.

So, why then is the rest of it such a slobbering, quivering, lip-smackingly sadistic violent mess? Why must we suffer the siege of Petersburg in such gratuitous detail when we’re already inundated with images of what warfare accomplishes? And why does Minghella linger on the agony of the deserter posse’s victims? At one point, Ruby, speaking of the Civil War and its horrors, declares, “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit!” She might very well describe Cold Mountain in the same terms.

mbelloSpeaking of bullshit, that brings us to The Cooler. Alec Baldwin has already been anointed by the National Board of Review as 2003’s “best” supporting actor for his turn as a murderous goon with delusions of humanitarianism. Baldwin’s performance is so over-the-top, he’s bound to rake in more accolades. Is he any good in this? Well, no, not especially. Baldwin pours on the kind of overwrought, thwack-you-around-with-a-baseball-bat, I-will-pound-it-into-you-how-impressive-I-am histrionics that even somewhat bright persons continue to mistake for good acting.

There are worthwhile films about gamblers and gambling. The otherworldly Louis Malle-John Guare collaboration Atlantic City springs to mind immediately. The Cooler, which focuses on lowlifes who lack even the street smarts to know not to mouth off to a violent criminal, isn’t one of them. Yes, the extreme sadistic torture on display here I found troublesome—especially since Lionsgate, not knowing what to do with this property (wasn’t straight to video an option?) has promoted it as a comedy. What bothers me more is that the filmmakers present their matchstick characters as being dumber-than-dumb in order to set them up for mini-orgies of violence. What we get is unearned, dishonest brutality on parade.

For example, and this is a priceless example, Natalie, a cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La casino, a woman who appears to have been—as they say—around, and as a resident of Las Vegas has perhaps reasonably acquired a certain savvy in the company of thugs, Natalie (played by the 36-year-old Maria Bello) stands before Shelly (Baldwin) whom she has previously witnessed assaulting a woman who was nine months pregnant, and declares, to the effect, “You, you, you! Bernie loves me, see, and Bernie and I are gonna start a new life together, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do about it, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Whereupon Shelly slams Natalie into a large, oval mirror, smashing the glass and her face.

It’s that kind of dumb that offends me, because it isn’t true. No one on planet Earth, no experienced person who’s lived a bit, would ever bait a man like Shelly that way. The above skirmish takes place, incidentally, in a room at the “Better Life Motel.” And in the tradition of cowardice, the hack director Wayne Kramer and his co-scenarist Frank Hannah save the worst of the horrors for women; the male characters are brutalized less graphically. – NPT

December 14, 2003