movie trailer (apple.com - quicktime)
NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Losman
The film takes place in a series of flashbacks during and before the Civil War.
Inman (Jude Law) is a confederate soldier who is passing the time in the trenches reading a weather beaten book and staring at a tin picture of a beautiful woman. As this occurs a group of Union solders are tunneling under his fort and placing explosives to destroy the fortification and attack the fort.
The movie moves to a flashback, the setting is Cold Mountain, North Carolina just prior to the beginning of the war. It is a warm spring day and the village is lively with men working on a church.
Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and her father (Donald Sutherland) are arriving into town; he has taken the job of minister and will oversee the work on the church he will preside. Ada is a gentile woman who is both beautiful and caring, yet her father feels as if he is holding her back by keeping her close to him.
She is happy to be with him, knowing he is in ill health she enjoys the company of her father. At the church construction site Ada has taken the eye of many a young man including Mr. Inman, who is working as a carpenter. At the request of a friend named Sally Swanger (Kathy Baker) Ada takes a glass of cider to Mr. Inman and he is happy to enjoy her company
Mr. Inman arrives at the Monroe's household as they are hosting a party, it is raining and Inman feels embarrassed to enter as he is wet.
Ada joins him with a tray of drinks for the servants, they talk and get wet but they are finding each other good company.
The church is shown with the parishioners outside, inside Mr. Inman is trying to catch a dove that has flown in. Mr. Inman catches the dove and carries it outside with care, Ada sees the bird fly and it seems symbolic.
At the church news of the war has reached Cold Mountain and the men are enthusiastic about joining the fight, although some argue they are against fighting for the rich man's slaves they feel a sense of patriotic duty to defend their home. Inman joins them and is preparing for the fight when he is visited by Ada; she gives him a book and inside is a tin image of her. He gives her one of himself and they are awkward in their words. They hug and kiss hoping the fight does not last long.
Inman is shown reading his book and admiring his photo, the trench grows lively as a rabbit emerges and the men scamper trying to catch it for food. It is then that an explosion occurs as the Union army marches in on the now stunned and injured men. The union soldiers march into the crater but find themselves stuck. Inman and his friends are summoned for what is a sure turkey shoot. Inman finds his book buried in the rubble and you can tell the senseless killing is getting to him.
Inman is seen volunteering for action against Union snipers, he and his friends surprise the soldiers and a fire fight ensues where most of his friends are killed. Inman is shot in the neck dragging one of his dead comrades.
Ada joins her father outside as he is writing his sermon, he asks about Mr. Inman and he is happy to see his daughter is smitten, she goes inside to allow him to finish his work. She begins playing her favorite piano. A storm soon arrives and Ada calls to her father to come in. She then finds he has passed away. The next few weeks are hard for her as food supplies grow scarce and she releases her slaves. The household begins to fall apart and she is afraid to take guests. On one such occasion she is scared by a rooster that has taken over her porch.
Inman is seen in a hospital, the conditions are horrid and the smell of death hangs heavy. Inman is visited by a gentile woman who reads him his mail and asks about Ada. He begins to feel sorrow for her as she tells of her father's death and the struggles she faces. He decides to desert to join her and help escape the war and get back to a life he hopes he may have with Ada. This is difficult as he recovering from his injury and the fear of being caught means imprisonment and possible death for desertion. He escapes anyway.
Ada goes into town and tries to keep a proud face; she is in need of food and is willing to trade her father's gold watch. The storekeeper passes her some salt pork and tells her to keep the watch. As she leaves she is confronted by Mr. Teague the head of the local home guard is keeping a curious eye on her and tells her he wants to keep her company. She is turned off by his lecherous advances and the control he has on the town now that all the men are gone. Ada accepts an invite to the Swanger household for dinner, they are a kindly older couple who have sons who are in the fight but happy to offer her support. Mrs. Swanger talks to her about Inman, she tells her she has a well that if she bends into and looks with a mirror she will see a vision of her love. Ada does this and sees a shadow of Inman walking to her with birds flying out (IMPORTANT!!!). The vision startles her but she has hope that maybe they might be reunited.
Ada finds a visitor who pretty much invites herself into her house. Her name is Ruby (Renee Zellweger) and she is quick to state she is not a servant and will work for room and board and be an equal.
Ada accepts the offer as she needs the companionship and her strong back to help run the household. Ada soon discovers that she is very novice in the most mundane tasks as Ruby bosses her around doing the menial work. Ada appreciates the efforts of Ruby but is exhausted from all the hard work she has never had to do in her life. She sells her beloved piano for food stock and animals to help feed them for winter. Before long the house is working order and the two become close as Ada reads to her in the evening and Ruby teaches her to cook and run the household.
Inman is walking along a road with stalks of corn growing, he grabs an ear but it is not ripe. He then encounters a group of slaves with food, he asks for some and offers money but they move on and ignore him. A few moments later Inman hears gunshots as the Home Guard kill the slaves and search for other deserters. Inman runs away and goes into a nearby forest. He then finds a white man holding a dead slave; he tells him she was pregnant with his child. Inman is not trusting toward this man and puts his gun on him.
The man is named Mr. Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he is a disgraced minister who talks too much, and he is quick to move on as he does need to draw attention to himself. Inman is mildly annoyed by his manners and lack of morals but he allows him to join him. They find a ferry to get them across the river; the ferry is handled by a young girl who takes them down the river for a fee. She then offers her body for the same fee but is shot by the home guard. Inman and Veasey are able to escape by taking quick action.
Ada and Ruby visit Mr. and Mrs. Swanger and are upset at her curt response, they were not invited in and she was quick to bid them off. As they walk home they notice the Swanger fields are cut and the hay bailed. Ruby yells that she has a lover yet both wonder why she acted this way when she is normally the friendliest person in town. Shortly afterward the Swanger farm is visited by the Home Guard who demands to have her 2 sons who they claim have deserted, she denies they are there and the men kill her husband when he tries to chase them off. They then coax the Swanger boys out and kill them on the spot. Mrs. Swanger is upset at the violence as the Home Guard seems to enjoy their reign of terror. Ruby and Ada hear the gunshots and go to the Swanger household where they see the carnage and find Mrs. Swanger tied up and barely alive. They help her knowing full well they might face the same punishment for helping a family of traitors.
Mr. Veasey finds a saw thrown away and tells Inman it might be useful, Inman doesn't bother with it and lets Veasey carry it. Inman and Veasey find a man named Junior (Giovanni Ribisi) trying to pull a dead cow out of the creek; they use the saw and cut the carcass up. He then invites them to his house where they find some friendly young women looking for male companionship. Veasey is happy to indulge but Inman resists the advances of the Junior's wife. She pulls her dress up and they are caught by the home guard who then beats her, and then Junior has the home guard arrest both Inman and Veasey. It seems he lures deserters into his house and gives them up for money. Inman and Veasey are put in a chain gang and marched by a group of Home Guard. They are marching when they are told to take cover as Union patrol is spotted, Inman calls to them knowing that Home Guard will not kill them for fear of being spotted by Union soldiers. The Home Guard proves no match for the Union solders as most of the prisoners and the home guard are killed. Inman survives and is able to escape from the now dead Mr. Veasey.
Inman is weak and is picked up by an old woman who helps and gives him some goat meat, she treats his wounds and listens to him speak of his quest to go home. She is sympathetic and helps him as much as she can. She is tired of the war and wants only to be left alone. She gives Mr. Inman some food and sends him off.
Ruby finds a thief caught stealing some of their food, it turns out to be her good for nothing father who has deserted his unit. He tells her has some friends up in the hills and wants some blankets and food. His friends are musicians and he tells Ruby he has written some songs for her. Ruby decides to help but knows it can get them in trouble.
Inman knocks on the door of a lonely cabin and is met by a young woman named Sara (Natalie Portman) who has a crying child; she is pretty but looks sad as she is concerned over the ill health of her child. She tells Inman her husband died in battle and that she is alone. She offers him a meal and asks that he sleep in the storage room. Inman prepares for bed and is soon asked by the woman to join her in bed. He lies next to her as she begins to cry, he embraces her as she cries for the memory for her dead husband. The next morning he is awoken by her demanding he leave as a group of Union soldiers arrive. He hides behind the house as he witnesses what will occur. She tells the soldiers she is alone with a sick child and has nothing to offer. They take her animals and prepare to rape her. Inman kills each of the solders for her and then he leaves her.
Ruby's father is invited to the house for New Years; he brings his friends Pangle (Ethan Suplee) and Georgia (Jack White). Pangle is simple minded but friendly, Georgia is quiet as well as friendly. They enjoy the night of good company and as they leave they don't notice the tracks they are leaving. They setup camp in the woods and Georgia leaves to throw up as he had some bad food. They are soon confronted by the Home Guard. They act friendly to them and get Pangle to open up, Ruby's dad tries to say he is making up stories but Pangle does not realize he is giving them up. Pangle is shot as well as Ruby's dad; Georgia is hiding and witnesses the murders.
Georgia runs back to the Monroe house and tells Ruby of the murder of her father.
Ada and Ruby travel into the woods and find the camp they made; they see the dead friend and discover her father is still alive. They take him to a cabin he used and nurse him back to health. While searching for food Ada shots a turkey and meets up with Mr. Inman. She thinks it might her vision but it is not exactly as she saw it. Both are surprised to see one another and they embrace lovingly. That night Inman and Ada talk about their time apart and it is clear they are in love. They speak of marriage and declare they are married in their eyes. They make love and embrace one another knowing that the time apart has brought them closer then they thought. The next morning as they prepare to ride out they discover the Home Guard who want her father, Inman surprises them and a gun fight ensues. Most of the Home guard is killed except for one who rides off, Inman chases him down and the two confront each other with gunshots. Ada runs into the woods and finds Inman as she had seen in the well, black birds fly and he is limping. He falls to the ground and she embraces him. He soon dies in a pool of blood as she cries with him in her arms.
Ada is shown a few years later, she has a daughter and joins Ruby at a picnic with Ruby's husband Georgia, they have a child of their own as well. Mrs. Swanger and Ruby's dad are sitting there as they celebrate their good fortune in being a family.