With Ride With the Devil, director Ang Lee has taken on the daunting task of loving America's Confederate underbelly -- a major ingredient in the composition of the common redneck. His knack for atmospheric nuance and grasp of changing seasons (both of climate and of the heart) have also enabled him to bring to the screen one of the most vital war movies ever made.
The year is 1861, the place is the Kansas-Missouri border, and the conflict is the Civil War, newly sparked by the formation of the Southern Confederacy. Young Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) are attending a joyful wedding. Jake, the poor son of a German immigrant father, finds the ceremony pleasing, but he cannot imagine partaking in such a ritual himself. Soon enough, however, notions of matrimony (and peaceful existence) are shoved far aside. Jake and Jack Bull are forced into manhood by the arrival of war, manifested by a gang of pro-Union jayhawkers who murder Jack Bull's father and burn down his family's house.
A year later Jake and Jack Bull have joined the fighting but not technically the army. Sympathizers for the Southern cause have their wild riders, too, and the boys have become outlaw bushwhackers, descending upon Union forces guerrilla-style. "Battles and armies?" muses Jake. "That's all back East. Down here you've just got the people to fight you." Teamed with trigger-happy Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), leering gargoyle; effete George Clyde (Simon Baker), inflated dandy; and Clyde's dependable former slave, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), solemn protector, Jake and Jack Bull ride under Black John (James Caviezel), dubious commander. After a couple of violent skirmishes and some painful losses, it's clear that the knaves have adopted the ways of the bushwhackers: move covertly, attack swiftly, and spare the women and children. (Oh, and wear flamboyant shirts, drawl archaic pleasantries, and keep the hair long.)
The story's focus sharpens when winter comes, and Jake, Jack Bull, Clyde, and Holt are forced to hole up in a makeshift dugout deep in the woods. Attended by Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), the widowed daughter of the bushwhackers' benefactor and supplier, Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier), the men come to terms with their motivations and each other. Jake's wounded innocence, Jack Bull's do-or-die wildness, and Clyde's romantic distractions all come to the fore. Most poignantly Holt's struggle for meaning in his ultimately self-defeating ride is given careful attention. At this point Ride With the Devil ceases to be just a war movie (although there's much more fighting to come), veering instead into the intimate depiction of souls under fire in a divided land. The energy Jake, Holt, and Sue Lee give off is incredibly subtle but highly charged, with Jake emerging as the film's hero.
This is heady subject matter, as the protagonists are fighting for a cause that supports not only time-honored traditions but slavery as well. Lee explains in his notes that filming Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On (for the movie, the title was shot down because of the word Woe) appealed to him because he saw the Civil War as representing the beginning of the Americanization of the entire world, including his own native Taiwan. "It was where the Yankees won not only territory but, in a sense, a victory for a whole way of life and thinking," he states. (In the film Mr. Evans echoes this sentiment: "They have no regard to station, custom, and propriety, and that is why they will win -- because they want everyone to live and think the same way they do.") Scholars of history may find this film to be quite a valuable document for its provocative themes.
Fortunately the movie's tone is about as far from a dry political dissertation as it can get. In this, Lee's most ambitious and successful work yet, his celebrated gift for psychological shading and complexity is on proud display. The director of The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, and The Ice Storm has ventured into vast new territory with Ride With the Devil (which he has jokingly called The Mud Storm) and guided his actors into shrewd, sensitive portrayals. The actors meet the challenge with rare grace, especially Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat), who deserves Oscar consideration for the veiled sensitivity he projects as Holt. In one scene, after a massive raid, Jake and Holt land their eyes upon a pile of slain African-American men, being stacked up by their own allies. "Holt, let's get us some eggs," suggests Maguire. "Yeah, Roedel, let's get us all the eggs they got," replies Holt. "And some ham."
Speaking of ham, skeptics may be displeased to note that Jewel gives a natural, measured, and totally plausible performance as Sue Lee. The movie really is ham-free, except perhaps for Rhys Meyers, but Jewel's work as a hopeful young frontierswoman is surprisingly adept, and Maguire's frustrated young rogue complements her beautifully. When she asks him if he's a virgin, his swift retort is a boast -- that he has killed 15 men. The movie's many such revelatory moments are actually more powerful than its bloody (and utterly convincing) battles.
The movie is masterfully staged and photographed, the largest production ever shot in the Missouri location. Production design by Mark Friedberg and art direction by Steve Arnold combine to re-create the towns, shanties, and battlefields of the era. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes focuses on these settings -- and the lush wilderness around them -- to create a seamless illusion of reality.
Ride With the Devil may not be the most popular period drama out this season (Lee wanted to make a movie "with characters who have dirty fingernails" and has done so), and in some circles it may even be reviled. Nonetheless this highly insightful film is strongly recommended for a nation that can use all the insight it can get.