Ride with the Devil (review)

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Song of the South

This is not your father’s Civil War movie. It’s more like your father’s Vietnam War movie. Morally complicated and frequently disquieting, Ride with the Devil is an intelligent and moving reexamination of the Civil War from the point of view of cultural Southerners living on the western frontier of the United States.

When war breaks out in 1861, settlers from both the North and South are living on the Kansas/Missouri border. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire: Pleasantville, The Ice Storm), though son of a poor German immigrant who supports the Union, is “as Southern as they come.” And when the wealthy, slave-owning father of his lifelong friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich: As Good as It Gets) is savagely killed by Union advocates, Jake and Jack Bull join up with the Bushwackers, a ragtag army waging a guerrilla war against Union soldiers and supporters.
Jake, the heart and soul of Ride with the Devil, is young and impressionable but sure of himself at first, unable to see the contradictions we see in his behavior. In a war in which neighbors are fighting neighbors, he can reassure a widow that “we don’t hurt women, ma’am,” as they destroy livelihoods and kill husbands before their wives’ eyes. But when Jake is instrumental in freeing a captured Union soldier and sees his compassion repaid in the most awful way, he begins to learn that his world is an ethical battleground in more ways than one, and that he’ll have to find his own path through a life in which nothing seems certain. From the gung-ho surety of youth, Jake comes to a general conclusion, about much of what he sees, that “it ain’t right and it ain’t wrong — it just is.”

Jake is challenged morally, too, during the harsh, snowy winter he and Jack Bull spend in hiding with fellow Bushwackers George Clyde (Simon Baker: L.A. Confidential) and George’s freed slave, the still-loyal Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright: Celebrity). Initially uneasy about a “nigger” with a gun in his hands, Jake will come to a grudging and then actual friendship with Daniel. And even Jack Bull’s stolen relationship during that winter with war widow Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel) will have far-reaching ramifications for Jake.

I have to admit that despite the involvement of director Ang Lee, the casting did not originally inspire me to expect good things from Ride with the Devil. I’ve enjoyed Tobey Maguire’s previous work but was afraid he was too modern to be able to pull off a period piece — ditto for Skeet Ulrich. And as for Jewel… Well, let’s just say the lovesick-teen flavor of her music (and poetry) doesn’t endear it to me. But all three of them are extraordinary here. In both the language and the attitudes of their characters, nothing feels anachronistic or anything less than genuine and heartfelt in their performances. From the strange way that they all treat Holt with both disdain and respect to all the meaning the men imbue in the tip of a hat (certainly something that men today have no experience with), they seem to have captured the people of the period perfectly. Ulrich, in particular, who has always reminded me physically of Johnny Depp, shows here that he might also share Depp’s ability to make a character his own — a talent that his appearances in movies like Scream don’t hint at. (Jeffrey Wright, whose performance I approached with no preconceptions, was likewise terrific. In a difficult role that features very little dialogue, Wright makes you feel as if Holt’s every word is deliberately and consciously chosen.)

As with his film The Ice Storm, the Taiwanese-born-and-raised Ang Lee demonstrates here that one doesn’t need to be an American to have one’s finger on the pulse of uniquely American moral quandaries. When the Bushwackers — who slowly transform themselves from an irregular army into a band of marauding, murdering Robin Hoods — launch an attack on Lawrence, Kansas, one of their deliberate targets is the schoolhouse run by Northerners. As Southern sympathizer Orton Brown (Tom Wilkinson: Shakespeare in Love, Oscar and Lucinda) had explained to Jake earlier, the school itself is a symbol of Northern aggression. While Southerners are willing to live and let live when it comes to Northern culture, the Unionists do not return that courtesy: their schools teach that everyone should live as they do. This is a perspective that Brown cannot abide, and the viewer doesn’t have to sympathize with Southern slave-owning attitudes to see his point. At what point does cultural imperialism become unconscionable? It’s a question that Ride with the Devil, to its credit, does not try to answer.

Ride with the Devil has a kind of miserable, desperate majesty to it, its fantastic score — replete with the strings of the South: fiddle and banjo — and beautiful vistas bumping up against the dirty, nasty insanity of the type of war the Bushwackers wage. Chaotic battles and skirmishes lead to grievous wounds: a lost finger, a jaw ruined by gunshots — which in turn become the stuff of morbid humor, as one character discusses how his new disfigurement might one day help identify his “gobby,” rotten, dead body.

Ride with the Devil is Ang Lee’s grandest, most complex film yet, and one that has stuck with me for weeks.

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