Ride with the Devil (1999)

Ride with the DevilCast: Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, James Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, John Ales, and Jewel.
Writers: James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell's novel.
Music: Mychael Danna.
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes.
Producer: James Schamus.

Director: Ang Lee.

Grade: B-

Review by Jeff Vorndam.

Ride with the Devil is a movie crushed by its weighty ambitions. It wants simultaneously to examine an epochal turning point in American history and tell a personal tale about two outsiders, their reasons for fighting for The Confederacy, and their subsequent disillusionment and friendship. Noble goals, but unfortunately, they are only inchoately realized. The result is an occasionally rousing, but mostly undistinguished, thinking-person's Civil War epic.

Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) are best friends and teenage Bushwhackers, enlistees in the Missouri Irregulars, a band of pro-South renegades. Missouri was a volatile location during the Civil War, as it was one of the few pro-slavery states not to secede from the Union. As a result, there was a good deal of infighting among neighbors and families from town to town. Jake Roedel would likely have sympathized with the North, like his German immigrant father did, if Jack Bull's father hadn't been killed by Northern Jayhawkers (the Union equivalent of the Bushwhackers). Out of loyalty to his friend, Jake joins the Irregulars, where duties include masquerading as Union soldiers to get the jump on sympathetic shop-owners. The leader of the Irregulars is Black John (James Caviezel), a vengeful man who sees no bystander as innocent. Jake performs his duties, but his voiceover monologue lets us know he's somewhat conflicted. Friendship with Jack Bull is more important than ideological or moral imperatives, though, and Jake is soon able to brag that he has killed fifteen men. Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Jake and Jack Bull hole up in some sort of bunker out in the woods for a winter. With them is Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a freed slave who fights for the South. Like Jake, Daniel has a misplaced sense of loyalty. In Daniel's case, it is for his former owner, who, Daniel felt, had always treated him like a friend. These scenes at the bunker don't advance the story, save to introduce the character of Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), the daughter of a local landowner sympathetic to their cause. Sue Lee and Jack Bull hit it off so well that soon Jake and Daniel are relegated to each other's company outdoors while the other two get it on in the bunker. To pass the time, Jake reads Daniel some intercepted mail from Union families to their soldiers. He and Daniel become aware of the complexities of the North-South conflict through these letters, which put a human face to their targets.

Jake's newfound humanism is put to the test when Black John joins forces with the infamous Quantrill (John Ales). Quantrill's raiders were a notorious band of ransackers, willing to decimate entire pro-Union towns. In the movie's most violent and sensational scene, the Bushwhackers under Quantrill raid Lawrence, Kansas. History has documented the raid as a cold-blooded massacre, and the film bears this out. Townspeople are shot on sight, women and children are not often spared. Particularly gleeful in meting out mass murder is Pitt Mackerson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a hollow-cheeked hothead of disturbing zeal. Jake and Daniel stumble dazed through the raid, trying to stay out of the way of the killings. In a turning point in the film, Jake stands up to Mackerson and prevents him from killing some townspeople who are serving Daniel and him a meal. Utterly disillusioned, and wounded, Jake and Daniel make their way back to Sue Lee's to recuperate.

Once again, the film's pace reverts to a leisurely saunter, as Jake takes his time to heal. He's in no hurry to get back to fighting and neither is Daniel. The two have become quite good friends by now, and their relation to each other is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie. Less interesting, but still well handled, is Jake's eventual marriage to Sue Lee. Ride with the Devil is in some ways a coming-of-age story, and Jake backs his way into matrimony, not perceiving that he is no longer the na´ve teen he once was.

Ride with the Devil works best on the personal level, as it traces Jake's maturation and Daniel's self-emancipation. However, these themes bob to the surface only intermittently. Too often, characters' motivations remain hazy and non-events lap up screen time with alarming alacrity. I wanted a deeper examination of the bond between Jake and Daniel, and particularly wanted to know more about Daniel, who seemed to harbor many untold secrets.

On a larger thematic level, Ang Lee stakes the skirmishes in Missouri to a major cultural turning point in American history. Ideals and traditions that had been identifiably American up until that point were replaced by a new kind of cultural paradigm (I promise this is the last time in the 90s I will use that word). Equality and the right for individual self-determination now outweighed the old bonds of station and place. As an outsider himself, Taiwanese-born Lee puts the American past under a microscope to draw inferences about our present. How far have we come? Have we achieved the ideals of freedom? These are interesting and worthwhile questions, but Ride with the Devil never quite gets a handle on them. Walking away from the film, I was frustrated because I knew I had seen a near miss. Perhaps taken in the context of Lee's entire oeuvre, Ride with the Devil can nestle its observations alongside those of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm to achieve a greater whole. On its own though, I think the movie falls short of its goals.

That's not to say it isn't a watchable film. Though the story moves slowly, the photography is always eye pleasing. Frederick Elmes conjures up some luscious greens and browns and evokes a strongly authentic look to the film. Though the characters speak in an ornate, high-falutin' style that is more in keeping with the written word of the time, it eventually sounds normal and even poetic at times. The acting is all-around above average, with the standouts being Jeffrey Wright and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Tobey Maguire gives another thoughtful performance; he's become quite adept at playing an outsider who knows just a little more than the people around him. His curious pensiveness plays to the audience like a memoir in real time. Wright really steals the show though, and it's too bad the movie didn't trim some extraneous scenes to focus on his character more.

It's tough to recommend this one because it's not quite good enough to demand that you rush out to see it now, but it's a scope film that will be greatly diminished by video. If you are a Civil War fan, or a patient moviegoer willing to root down and ferret out some substance, I would advise that you see it.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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