Ride with the Devil (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Most Civil War films - and there have been quite a few over the years - have a tendency to skew their perspective towards the Northern viewpoint. It's not hard to understand why - the old South may have been North America's final refuge for a genteel people with courtly manners, but it was also the Western world's last major bastion of slavery. Films like Gone With the Wind can romanticize the old South by virtually ignoring this ugly, festering sore, but turning a blind eye doesn't negate the truth. In the '90s, only the balanced and historically accurate Gettysburg (arguably the best non-documentary Civil War movie ever made) has treated the South with some sympathy and dignity - until Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil.

Lee is an interesting filmmaker. Born in Taiwan, he came to the United States for college and has remained here since. His first three movies - Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman - all dealt with Chinese culture and family. Then, with the critically lauded Sense and Sensibility, he made his mark as a director who could transcend his roots. Following the Jane Austen adaptation came The Ice Storm, a brilliant dissection of decay and dysfunction in the family unit during the turbulent '70s. Few would have guessed that such an on-target depiction of America would come from someone who was born an outsider. Now, for his sixth film, Lee has chosen to focus on The Civil War - the quintessential turning point in this nation's history. And, as with The Ice Storm, he shows an astonishing ability to cut to the heart of matters. This is not a political diatribe against slavery, but a carefully constructed exploration of the effects of a war that divided families and communities, and had men fighting out of loyalty even when they didn't believe in the cause.

The four main characters - Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny), and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) - are members of the "Missouri Irregulars," a poorly organized, rag-tag group that wages guerrilla warfare against Union loyalists. Like their jayhawker enemies, these bushwhackers often attack without warning or mercy, killing men and burning whole villages with seeming impunity. Roedel and Chiles fight out of loyalty to the Confederacy and because they hate the Yankees (both have lost loved ones to Federalists). Clyde, the prototypical Southern gentleman, is at war to preserve his way of life. And, Holt, the most interesting man in the group, is an ex-slave who fights for the South out of a sense of allegiance to Clyde, who purchased then freed him. Holt does not believe in Clyde's cause, but he will fight alongside his friend for as long as they both continue to breathe.

The story develops over the course of a winter, while the four men hide out in a crudely built shelter on the property of a pro-Confederacy family, the Evanses. A young widow in the household, Sue Lee Shelly (Jewel), becomes involved with Chiles, and Clyde spends much of his time visiting a local lady friend. This gives Roedel and Holt an opportunity to get to know one another, and sets up the inevitable tragedy when combat occurs and not all of the participants escape with their lives. After the Irregulars stage a bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas (a Union stronghold), they are hunted down by Northern troops and cut to pieces. Injured survivors seek shelter with friendly families and are forced to re-evaluate their participation in the war.

As the film progresses, Lee increasingly stresses the pointlessness of the Irregulars' struggle. The only thing they are accomplishing is killing people. Nothing they do has any impact on the war. This truth occurs to everyone, beginning with Sue Lee and ending with Roedel, as disillusionment convinces each of them of the folly of continuing the fight. Ride With the Devil also illustrates the horrible excesses that some men go to in the name of a cause. It has been said that the qualities which make the best soldier are the least desirable in a normal citizen. Nowhere is that more evident than in the characters of Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a sadistic psychopath, and Black John (James Caviezel), a brutal man driven by anger and revenge. These men revel in carnage; they seek it out where others shrink back.

Although Roedel has the most screen time and is at the center of the story, he is not as compelling an individual as Holt. During Ride With the Devil's first third, the black man remains an enigma, always in the background, rarely speaking. Gradually, however, the complexity of this character is revealed. Aside from Clyde, he is alone in the world. His mother was sold many years ago and he has not had any contact with her. Initially, it seems that his decision to fight on the side of the South is deranged, but, the more we learn about Holt's reasons, the more sense it makes. There's nothing obscure about Roedel, Chiles, Clyde, or Sue Lee, but understanding Holt requires a commitment on the part of the viewer.

From a technical perspective, Ride With the Devil is nearly perfect. The attention to detail invested by Lee and his crew shows. From costumes to props, everything has the unmistakable hallmark of authenticity. The only Civil War drama able to boast an equal level of historical accuracy is Gettysburg. The movie also looks great. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who worked with Lee on The Ice Storm, places his cameras in such a way that we are drawn into the story rather than distanced from it. Ride With the Devil displaces the viewer in time.

The film is not without flaws. James Schamus' script has uneven moments, chief of which is a halfhearted attempt to develop a romance. This particular element feels less like a natural extension of the story and more like a grafted-on appendage. Either more or less time should have been devoted to it; in its present format, it's like the shorthand version of a more interesting subplot. Part of the problem is that the female half of the couple, Sue Lee, is not an effectively realized character. While singer-turned-actress Jewel's performance is adequate, it lacks a vitality that a more experienced performer might have brought to the role. Consequently, Sue Lee sometimes feels more like a plot device than a multidimensional individual worthy of our attention.

Maguire (who previously appeared in Lee's The Ice Storm and can also be seen this Fall in The Cider House Rules) and Ulrich are fine in roles that don't require either actor to stretch their range. The standout is Jeffrey Wright, who previously grabbed notice for his title performance in Basquiat, and uses this opportunity to build upon that favorable foundation. Holt does not have a great deal of dialogue, so it's up to Wright to bring the character to life through gestures, mannerisms, and body language - a task he unquestionably accomplishes. Simon Baker-Denny, a relatively unknown face, essays his part without difficulty, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is suitably chilling as the vicious Mackeson.

Ride With the Devil is a different sort of Civil War story. Like Dances With Wolves, it takes us away from the big battles of the East and to a place where things are less cleanly defined. Although Missouri was not a battleground where the Union and Confederate armies repeatedly clashed, it was nevertheless rent by strife. As was true almost everywhere else, idealogical gulfs often divided families. This is the terrain into which Lee has ventured, and the resulting motion picture offers yet another effective and affecting portrait of the United States' most important and difficult conflict.

Ride with the Devil (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1