Ang Lee’s 1999 feature Ride with the Devil is a curious film. Made for a reported $38 million, it opened in 11 theaters, expanded to 60 at its peak and ultimately earned $635,096 at the box-office. In this sense I don’t even think the word “flop” applies. Then again, I view a flop as something more than a film that simply isn’t commercially successful. When I hear the term “flop” I also think of a film with little worth that offers absolutely nothing to the world of cinema. Ride with the Devil is not one of those films.
Ride with the Devil‘s place in film history, though, is up for debate. There only seems to be so much anyone talks about in discussing this film, and the lack of special features on Criterion’s release of Lee’s director’s cut allows for plenty of repetition in terms of saying “this is one of the only films to present a sympathetic portrayal of the South during the Civil War,” and it’s a mantra that’s quickly beat into the ground. Sure, Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Holt, a former slave fighting for the South, speaks to the heart of the film and is covered in an excellent 15 minute exclusive interview. However, with two audio commentaries, neither of which include a Civil War historian, I think Criterion severely missed the boat with this release as the main reasons this forgotten film of recent history is remembered are not discussed with the necessary academics.
Set during the Kansas-Missouri border war, Ride with the Devil climaxes with the bloodbath known as the Lawrence Massacre. Telling the story of warring neighbors — Kansas represented by the Union supporting Jayhawkers and Missouri’s Southern sympathizers, the Bushwackers — the film finds its focus on a pair of Bushwackers portrayed by Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich, pre-Spider-Man and post-Scream respectively.
Maguire plays Jake “Dutchy” Roedell and following a Jayhawker raid in which Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich) watches as his father is murdered, the two run off in an attempt to stay alive, but their rage remains. Teaming with a group led by Black John (James Caviezel) they take to the countryside murdering Union sympathizers as an act of revenge more than anything political. Lines blur and several names that weren’t so familiar then play a role in what is a worthy piece of mood-based cinema, but serves as more of a history lesson than an out-and-out great film.
The likes of Simon Baker, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and folk singer Jewel all play roles, some larger than others, but all very recognizable. Jewel, in fact, is probably dolled up a bit too much for her role as a strong-willed war widow, but plays her part in an impressively even manner. In what amounts to her one and only major feature film I would have envisioned her trying way too hard, but in fact her performance is fitting and perfectly subdued.
As mentioned before, Jeffrey Wright also turns in an excellent performance and one that has a far greater impact as the film moves along. In his interview segment he refers to Ride with the Devil as a movie showing how much the world of film has grown using Birth of a Nation as a starting point and Ride with the Devil as the yin to its yang. He’s right, though the film’s quiet nature is likely to never get it seen by too large an audience.
The least impressive of the bunch is the snarling Rhys Meyers playing the uber-villain of the bunch Pitt Mackeson. For as much as this film doesn’t take sides and allows the story to be the guide, it didn’t need such an over-the-top antagonist, a performance I primarily blame on Rhys Meyers rather than screenwriter James Schamus or Lee, seeing how Meyers was playing the same character he embodies in most everything I’ve seen him in. Here it just doesn’t work.
There are two audio commentaries, the first with Schamus and Lee, the duo that delivered The Ice Storm two years earlier and Brokeback Mountain seven years later. The two don’t make for lively partners, but certainly informative ones with a varied focus from historical events to the shooting of the film. The second commentary delivers a curious amount of historical information from cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg. Granted, I asked for more of a historical study earlier in this review, but I the film’s technical crew isn’t exactly where I was looking. Nevertheless, it’s informative and worth a listen though I did only flip around through both commentaries seeing how I didn’t have time to watch this two-and-a-half-hour film three times.
The transfer looks and sounds spectacular. There is no distorting the mood this film creates and the high-definition picture and DTS-HD master audio track only add to the experience. Mychael Danna’s score is one of the more attractive elements of the film adding to the “not your typical Civil War film” assertion.
I can’t say I would rush out to recommend folks buy this title, but it’s worth a watch for any film enthusiast. It is important to let you know it is a bit slow and some people may grow entirely weary of the pace as the leads set in for a bit of wintry hibernation in the woods. It’s a large section of the film you will read most every reviewer citing as a slow point. Personally, I didn’t have much of a problem with any of it, though I was never entirely overwhelmed. My history is extremely limited and I even popped open the laptop to Wikipedia a thing or two while watching, it kept me intrigued and watching, but I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to watch it again.
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