Criterion // 1999 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 3rd, 2010
Our history books tend to paint the American Civil War as a bloody but basically civilized affair, with young men in blue and gray lined up in formation opposite one another, regretful for having to kill each other but resigned to doing their sacred national duty. The Kansas-Missouri Border War belies that reductionist image of the war. It was a vicious, no-holds-barred conflict between abolitionist irregulars from Kansas called Jayhawkers, and pro-slavery guerilla fighters from Missouri called Bushwhackers. Neither side showed much hesitation in defeating the other by any means necessary. Civilians were often caught in the crossfire.
It is in this nasty crucible of combat that director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm) chose to set his civil war epic Ride with the Devil, based on Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On. The movie was originally released on DVD by Universal back in 2000. Now, it has been treated to a substantial upgrade on both DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.
Despite the fact that his German immigrant father is a Union sympathizer, Jake "Dutchie" Roedel (Tobey Maguire, Seabiscuit) follows his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich, Scream) into combat with the Bushwackers. Never a bloodthirsty soldier, Dutchie loses his taste for combat after his group joins up with William Clarke Quintrill and participates in the Lawrence Massacre, during which the more remorseless members of his band, like Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Velvet Goldmine), slaughter civilian men and boys and burn the Kansas town to the ground. During his adventures in guerrilla warfare, Dutchie meets Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright, Quantum of Solace), a former slave who acts as a scout for the Bushwhackers out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker, L.A. Confidential), a white man who showed him kindness. Dutchie and Holt strike up an unlikely friendship that endures even as the war draws to a close and Dutchie finds himself compelled to marry a young widow (singer Jewel Kilcher).
Ride with the Devil's greatest asset is its screenplay, which is tightly symmetrical but so focused on character that it doesn't feel the least bit artificial or contrived. A tight parallel exists between Dutchie and Holt: Each fights alongside the Bushwhackers even though his natural affinity should be with the Jayhawkers. Dutchie finds himself on the pro-slavery side of the fight because of loyalty to Jack Bull; Holt appears little concerned with the politics of the conflict, but simply chooses to stay by the side of George Clyde, the man who ostensibly freed him from slavery. While this similarity in their experiences becomes the basis of their unusual friendship, their affection for one another never feels like the inevitable result of narrative structure. Instead, it seems to grow organically across small moments shared between the men in combat and during times of rest.
Building a character drama as opposed to a conventional war picture, Ang Lee allows himself plenty of time to reveal his characters through copious amounts of dialogue and subtle, carefully studied actions. Don't get me wrong, the movie does have some memorable battle sequences (the Lawrence Massacre not least among them), but they are used to punctuate quieter moments during which the Bushwhackers mostly spend time in each other's company, carrying out mundane tasks and awaiting combat. The theatrical cut of the film sprawled languidly across 138 minutes. This Criterion release stretches to 148 minutes, most of them high on understated drama and low on action (the additions are primarily subtle expansions to existing scenes, though there is a fine, tense new sequence in which Dutchie and Jack Bull confront a disconsolate and surly young Confederate soldier who lost his leg in combat). Expectations are the key to one's enjoyment of Ride with the Devil. If you go in expecting a nuanced war drama and character study with an underlying social commentary about race in America, you'll likely enjoy yourself. If you're in the mood for an action-packed war flick, look elsewhere.
Ride with the Devil is often accused of being marred by stilted, subpar performances by its actors. That's not entirely true. Lee did a fine job of assembling his cast. Supporting roles are filled by a long list of actors who would go on to greater fame and fortune, including James Caviezel, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson. Despite the fact that his performance has taken a drubbing from critics, Skeet Ulrich acquits himself well as Jack Bull Chiles, delivering appropriate levels of intensity and barely suppressed rage. He plays the role without overplaying it, which is trickier than it seems. The movie's thespian problems begin and end with Tobey Maguire. The future Spider-Man is a solid performer but he's miscast here. Lee was obviously drawn to the actor's natural capacity for playing wide-eyed guilelessness. But on the page, Dutchie has a quick, wry wit that manifests in a snappy, almost poetic use of language. Maguire plays these scenes with no attention to comic timing and so little sparkle in his eye that Dutchie comes off as only accidentally witty. As a result of Maguire's weak performance, the camaraderie between Dutchie and Jack Bull isn't as textured and believable as it ought to be. This is such a debilitating flaw in a movie that is otherwise well-written and beautifully shot that it prevents Ride with the Devil from being among the best of Lee's movies. Even Jeffrey Wright's quietly intense and deeply human performance as Daniel Holt isn't enough to rescue the picture from the inappropriate casting of Maguire.
The Criterion Collection's release of Ride with the Devil looks great for a standard definition presentation, though one can't help but be aware how much better the lush green vistas of the American heartland would look on Blu-ray. The director-approved transfer is presented at the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, enhanced for widescreen displays. Colors are accurate and natural. Detail is limited only by the 480p presentation. The fully restored Dolby 5.1 audio track is similarly impressive.
While the disc is relatively light on extras, none of the supplements is fluff. There are two audio commentaries. The first, by Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, delves deeply into the movie's story and ideas. The second, by cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg, is more about the technical aspects of the production. There's also a modern-day interview with Jeffrey Wright, conducted by the Criterion Collection for this release. The actor reflects back on the making of the movie, as well as discussing in general terms how race is handled in American cinema. The piece is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and runs nearly 15 minutes.
As is customary with Criterion, there is also a hefty insert booklet that contains two scholarly essays about the movie. The first, by critic Godfrey Cheshire, examines the movie's themes. The second essay is by historian Edward E. Leslie, who delves more deeply into the movie's historical context.
The Criterion Collection's edition of Ride with the Devil offers a top-notch presentation of a movie that was beautifully conceived but whose execution leaves something to be desired. Still, the disc is at least worth a rental for Jeffrey Wright's fine performance and Ang Lee's lush visual design.
The court finds Ride with the Devil disappointing, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R