- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
n 1951, the Southern American Nobel laureate William Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead; It's not even past." It's a favorite quote of Barack Obama when talking about the history of race and culture in America, and it's just those kind of obvious historical resonances that are nearly unavoidable as you watch the rough but memorable first action-drama film directed by Taiwan-born Ang Lee.
All but buried on its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat vague, the director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm," and, yes, "Hulk," has re-edited the film for a Criterion edition that presumably gives us a somewhat improved version of the original. (This cut is about ten minutes longer than the 1999 release.) As it stands, Lee's forgotten film is somewhat unfocused at times, but it quickly emerges as an engaging, gently harrowing, and entirely worthwhile work that definitely lingers in the mind afterward. "Ride with the Devil" is also remarkable for the way it confronts issues raised by the American Civil War – once again reminding us of the fact that it often takes immigrant filmmakers like Lee to show America to itself.
Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and pithily adapted by Ang Lee's longtime American writing collaborator, James Schamus, "Ride with the Devil" is set in the North/South border state of Missouri where the conflict is playing out in all too personal a manner and, sometimes quite literally, brother is being set against brother. In the case of Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), it's his Dutch-immigrant father (John Judd) who favors the Union while he sides with the Confederacy.
Like many an immigrant's son, Jake wants to fit in and so he has become best friends with Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), the son of a pro-confederate landowner and a surrogate big brother for the wryly thoughtful young man. When Jack's father (David Darlow) is killed in cold blood by jayhawkers, a band of marauding pro-Union mercenaries, Jack and Jake become bushwhackers, marauding pro-Confederates partisans whose tactics are about equally terroristic, though with a facade of Southern chivalry. They have few compunctions about murdering unarmed males they perceive to be pro-Union, perhaps including even young boys, though women are off limits. It's not quite 1990s Yugoslavia or Rwanda in the disunited states of America in 1861, but it's not so completely different either.
Though not openly opposed to the bushwhackers' tactics, Jake is, in his mealy-mouthed way, clearly the most openly leery of bloodshed and out-and-out cruelty. On the other side of the issue is the melancholy but kill-happy psychopath, Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, recalling his rock star persona from "Velvet Goldmine" to frightening and hateful effect). Meanwhile George Clyde (Simon Baker) appears to be the very model of a stereotypical Southern gentlemen, except that his best friend and right hand man in battle is an African-American and his former slave. Counterintuitive though his position might be, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) is probably the most effective fighter of the group and, though he barely speaks through much of the first half of the film, we can nevertheless feel his understandable inner conflict.
The state of things changes gradually over the course of the film. Clyde's gentlemanly gallantry eventually finds its limits as his soul begins to die, Holt and Jake – whose initial reaction to fighting with a black man is that "a nigger with a gun is still a nervous thing" – become close. A more quickly burgeoning relationship is between the suave Jack Bull and a pretty, well-mannered but also fairly lusty local girl, Sue Lee Shelley (singer Jewel in her only acting performance), causing some embarrassment to the sexually innocent Jake. Nevertheless, there are more pressing issues to consider.
"Ride with the Devil" is not a great movie, and there are some less than thrilling segments, though they are relatively brief. Nevertheless, it is a bridge between Lee's outstanding social films like "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility," and the great action film/tragicomedy he would soon make, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." For a director unused to depicting action and violence, it also reveals Lee as unusually confident. The war scenes are not particularly graphic compared to a film like "Glory," but they are far more terrifying, give or take an exploding head, than Edward Zwick's film. Lee underlines the random nature of violence and killing, most particularly with sound. Every gunshot and explosion registers louder than we expect and often delivering instant and ugly death.
While relatively restrained in terms of blood and guts, Lee's view of violence is anything but sanitized and never allows us to take pleasure in killing. Even at a moment towards the end of a film, when a young boy kills a particularly brutal, and dead drunk, bushwhacker who has murdered his newspaperman father, we feel no action-movie pleasure, only the knowledge that the cycle of violence has completed itself. As Tobey Maguire's Jake says, surveying the slaughter of the Lawrence, Kansas massacre, "it's just bad luck citizens finding out how bad luck can be."
This lengthy sequence is probably the moment when the very few people who saw "Ride with the Devil" back in 1999 must have begun to realize that the then relatively unknown Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright were the real stars of the movie. (At the time, Skeet Ulrich was, ironically, probably the best known actor in what has since become an all-star cast.) A confrontation over a ham-and-egg breakfast during the Lawrence massacre is the closest the film ever gets to traditional heroics. It is one that, characteristically, is resolved without the usual satisfying rush of gunfire, but it does tell us very much about the characters played by Maguire, Wright and Rhys-Meyers.
The final 30 minutes takes this non-traditional approach a step further. The movie stops being a war film and focuses almost entirely on matters of love and romance. It's not quite as dramatic as the shift from war tale to rom-com in Shakespeare's "Henry V," but it does morph into another Ang Lee period social dramedy not so different from something like his Taiwanese breakthrough film, "The Wedding Banquet." This turns out to be the most enjoyable portion of "Ride with the Devil," which is probably on purpose. This is most definitely an anti-war film, and a pro-love-and-friendship movie, among other things.
Certainly, back in his dramatic comfort zone, Lee knows how to use his three main actors in these final scenes. Critically unloved singer-songwriter Jewel was at the height of her musical fame in 1999, and her casting was no doubt partially to reassure the money people. Personally, I'd be happy if she did more acting and less singing. She has a natural and warm quality on screen that makes her entirely believable as a once-sheltered young woman buffeted by a deadly war and an inevitably messy personal life.
Tobey Maguire was not yet Peter Parker, but he was already an unusually likable young actor and this is a remarkable performance revealing both a killer of necessity and an innocent whose good nature has not left him. In one scene, he dandles a baby with such simple and infectious joy that I feel absolutely no shame or threat to my masculinity in admitting that I wanted to dandle Maguire on my knee. ('Who's a good little movie actor? You're a good little movie actor! Yes you are!") In another scene, confronted by Jewel about his character's virginity, he counters by saying that he's killed 14 men. We know this to probably be true, and that some of those kills may have been out-and-out murders and not "clean" battlefield deaths, but there are different kinds of innocence and experience.
Jeffrey Wright's performance is something else again because, as explicated in the DVD commentary and in an interview with him, he is, in actual fact, the John Wayne character of this film. For all the problems we may have with the idea of a black man fighting for the side that would continue to enslave his own people, by the end of the film, it's his character that reminds us of the bond between the Civil War and the cinema myth of the American West. After the story's highly non-traditional resolution, it is Wright's Daniel Holt who gets the big Western-movie farewell a la "Shane" or "The Searchers." As writer-producer James Schamus notes in the commentary track, "Ride with the Devil" was the first movie where an African-American rides off into the sunset on horseback since "Blazing Saddles."
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
The best company in the field delivers again with a technically outstanding DVD that really show off the rich colors brought to life by cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and a relatively modest group of extras that are nevertheless first-rate. The aforementioned commentary with James Schamus, a Ph. D. and something of a film scholar, and the thoughtful and sincere Ang Lee, is a treat for fans of the many outstanding films the two have collaborated on throughout their respective careers. Schamus also takes on some of the complexities of the war and he's not afraid of stating his opinions. (Some might disagree with his assertion that the war was not intended to free the slaves. I think that is technically true but also misleading. Slavery may not have been the primary cause for the war, but it was the main underlying reason for pretty much all of the causes.) There is also a new interview with Jeffrey Wright, an extremely smart and knowledgeable man, who has plenty to say about the film and his controversial and entirely remarkable role in it.