Criterion // 1999 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 19th, 2010
A rumination on identity and loyalty.
"Don't think you are a good man. The thought will spoil you."
We're introduced to Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man) and Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich, Scream) just as the Civil War is beginning. When Jack Bull's father is killed by the Union-affiliated Jayhawkers, the two friends decide to jump into the war by joining the Bushwhackers (a rogue pro-south group that decided to fight for their home state of Missouri rather than joining the rest of the Confederacy in Virginia). During this violent and turbulent time, the two protagonists find friends in the likes of George Clyde (Simon Baker, Something New) and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright, Syriana). The latter is a freed slave who nonetheless decided to fight with the pro-slavery Bushwhackers. Jake and Jack Bull also confront some unsavory men within their ranks, including the violent Black John Ambrose (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) and the vile Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, From Paris With Love). As the war rages on, relationships are formed, conflicts build and the men begin to come to terms with the frustrating complexities and unsubtle terrors of the war.
The case has been made that Ang Lee's epic Ride With the Devil has been overlooked and misunderstood. Despite a considerable cost of $35 million, the film only played in eight U.S. theatres when it was released, largely due to negative press generated by the fact that the film prominently featured an African-American character fighting for the Confederacy. Never mind that such things actually happened; it was a politically incorrect plot element and Lee's film was doomed to relative obscurity. Now the film is getting a second chance with Criterion's release of Lee's new, longer director's cut, which promises to restore his original vision and reveal Ride With the Devil to be a lost masterpiece. Has the film been unjustly ignored? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? No.
Let's start by focusing on the positive: Lee has crafted a genuinely compelling portrait of the Civil War that manages to offer a fresh perspective free of smug hindsight. The war was a bloody and devastating conflict; a complex monster that managed to pit brother against brother. Too often, the war is reduced to a simplistic formula along the lines of, "It was fought over slavery, the north was against slavery and the south was for slavery, the north was good and the south was evil, the end." Anything that threatens this easily digestible point-of-view tends to make people uncomfortable, but the fact of the matter is that the war was not an easily digestible thing.
Lee begins in unusual territory by telling his story entirely from a Confederate point-of-view. All of the major characters are Confederates, both the protagonists and antagonists of the tale. Union soldiers (mostly the abolitionist Jayhawkers) are only felt in terms of the physical destruction they bring; they serve to occasionally bring additional violence into the story before disappearing victoriously. Many writers and directors often choose to outfit their historical fiction heroes with modern values, bringing them in line with the beliefs of modern viewers in order to make them more palatable. In Ride With the Devil, Lee and his longtime collaborator James Schamus embrace contradictions.
Though Ulrich receives first billing, Maguire's Jake Roedel is the unquestionable central figure of the story. He's a nice guy, kind, compassionate, and thoughtful. He also finds the idea that all slaves should be freed or should be considered as equal human beings a pretty laughable one, though his opinion on the matter shifts just a little as he starts to befriend Daniel Holt. The latter is an even greater contradiction, a freed slave who would seemingly fight against his freedom by choosing to fight against the abolitionists. It's an odd decision that doesn't fit into the simplistic narrative of the Civil War, but again, the war was not a simplistic thing. What's so sharply accentuated in Ride With the Devil is just how small a role the political elements played for the common soldier. Many of them were fighting out of some sense of duty to their state, regardless of the larger issues at play. It's an, "I must defend me and mine from they and them," mentality. Jake and Jack Bull don't join the war because they believe strongly in slavery or a state's right to secede; they join because Union soldiers killed Jack Bull's father and thus must be the bad guys.
The film is visually stunning, and thankfully Criterion offers up a strong 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer that allows one to fully appreciate Frederick Elmes' terrific cinematography. The film is an epic experience, offering sweeping portraits of violent battles in a manner that's both artful and visceral. Detail is strong throughout, flesh tones are warm and accurate, darker scenes benefit from strong shading and deep blacks. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong as well, with Mychael Danna's rousing score (one could perhaps argue that it's a bit too heroic for the subject matter, but it's hardly as repellant as Randy Edelman's gung-ho score for "Gettysburg") coming through with strength and clarity. The battle sequences are well-distributed and dialogue is clean and clear throughout. The track isn't as immersive as I would have liked (sound design is lacking in complexity at times), but it gets the job done.
Supplements are a little thin considering that this is a full-priced Criterion release. The biggest items are two audio commentaries; one with Lee & Schamus and the other with Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg. I found the former more compelling than the latter, as Lee and Schamus touch on the themes of the film and spend a good deal of time analyzing the characters. They also touch on the unfortunate press the film received around the time of its release,which is quite interesting. The second track is a bit more technical, but nonetheless spends a surprising amount of time devoted to analyzing the film's themes. Finally, you get a 14-minute interview with Jeffrey Wright (who praises the film and defends its exploration of racial issues) and a booklet containing essays by Godfrey Cheshire and Edward E. Leslie.
As much as I admire what the film accomplishes from a storytelling perspective, the characters are lacking. It's not the way they're written; aside from some awkward attempts at recapturing the flavor of Civil War-era dialogue, the characters are well-defined by the screenplay. However, the actors aren't up to the challenge. Skeet Ulrich and Tobey Maguire are terribly unconvincing in their portrayal of southern soldiers; both seem entirely too much like modern actors wearing period costumes. That Jeffrey Wright is the bright spot of the film acting-wise is no surprise, but when Jewel turns in a more successful performance than your lead actors, odds are your movie is in trouble. Additionally, talented actors like Mark Ruffalo (Just Like Heaven), Jim Caviezel, and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) are pretty much wasted. This is really the film's only weak point, but it's a very serious one that does considerable damage.
An ambitious, complex movie hampered by weak performances, Ride With the Devil is worth a look. Criterion's release is slightly less loaded than you might expect it to be, so I'm going to advise a rental rather than a purchase for those who are curious. Fans of the film will find this disc worth the upgrade from the DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R