With this new director’s cut, Ang Lee reconstructs his original vision for his Civil War epic, Ride with the Devil, an intimate, harrowing look at a country torn in half, told from a daringly unorthodox perspective, starring Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright.
The year 1999 may well have been the best for American cinema in recent memory. Not since the heyday of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s had the film industry released such an amazingly strong slate of movies. Titles like 'American Beauty', 'Being John Malkovich', 'The Cider House Rules', 'Eyes Wide Shut', 'Fight Club', 'The Insider', 'Magnolia', 'The Talented Mr. Ripley', and 'Three Kings' were all (at least arguably) of masterpiece caliber. Even populist fare like 'Election', 'The Iron Giant', 'The Matrix', 'The Sixth Sense', 'South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut', and 'Toy Story 2' were much smarter, better crafted, and more ambitious than expected for the usual disposable summer fluff. No doubt, there were some huge duds mixed in there as well. (We'll try not to dwell on 'The Phantom Menace' too much.) Nonetheless, by and large, it was a terrific time to be a film lover. We haven't seen another year that overwhelmingly good since.
Lost somewhere in this shuffle were several smaller, artistically worthy but largely overlooked films such as 'Cradle Will Rock', 'Mansfield Park', 'A Map of the World', 'Snow Falling on Cedars', and 'The Straight Story'. One of my personal favorites from that year is a movie that I went into with the lowest of expectations, Ang Lee's Civil War drama 'Ride with the Devil'. While I was a fan of the filmmaker's earlier works from Taiwan, including 'The Wedding Banquet' and 'Eat Drink Man Woman', I was never enraptured with his two previous English-language pictures, 'Sense and Sensibility' or 'The Ice Storm'. They were decent enough movies, I suppose, but felt too cold and sterile for my liking. This most American of subject matter also seemed an odd choice to put in the hands of a foreign director. Not to mention that Lee had no prior experience directing action scenes or a production of this scope. To top it off, what little publicity that the studio gave 'Ride with the Devil' mostly focused on the inclusion of annoying pop-folk singer Jewel in a supporting role. None of this appealed much to me on its face. All of which only left me that much more dumbstruck when I walked out loving the film.
What separates 'Ride with the Devil' from other Civil War movies is its focus on the western fringe of the conflict. In the border state of Missouri, the war is waged on far less formal terms than the main battleground states. Southern Bushwhackers use guerilla tactics (such as disguising themselves as Union soldiers to infiltrate enemy lines) to fight Northern raiders called Jayhawkers. Their battles are messy affairs without much structure or strategy.
The film also takes the unusual stance of telling the story from the Southern perspective. Our main characters are a pair of Bushwhackers named Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich). They've both barely just entered manhood. Jack Bull seeks revenge against the Jayhawkers for murdering his father, while Jake has joined the cause mostly in defiance of his own father, a Northern-sympathizer. Also, Jake is of German descent and feels a need to prove himself a true Southerner to his friends. Among others, these two are joined by handsome ladies' man George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a freed slave who speaks very little and fights for the South alongside George for complex reasons that Jake especially doesn't understand at first.
None of these characters are fighting to defend the institution of slavery, per se. But they do want to preserve their way of life, which they believe is being encroached upon by Northerners who try to force their own way of thinking onto everyone else. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the way that, in the midst of all this bloody strife and conflict, the Bushwhackers try to maintain as much of their Southern civility and exceedingly formal speech patterns as possible. It's here that Lee's experience directing 'Sense and Sensibility' is well suited. Much of the dialogue sounds like it comes from a different era entirely, almost as if Jane Austen might have written it.
Holt is, by far, the most complex and intriguing character in the piece. The idea of a former slave fighting for the South might seem almost inconceivable from our modern perspective, but did really happen in documented historical examples. Over the course of the film, we slowly learn more about him and his motives. The way he's treated by others (not always well, but not always as badly as you'd expect either) offers a unique look at race relations in the era.
Yet this is far from a romanticized depiction of the glorious Old South of yore. The war is shown in quite brutal terms, with both physical and emotional tolls on the characters. Friends and relations betray each other over politics they barely understand. As the war drags on, the film becomes more and more the story of Jake and Holt, and their growing disillusionment with the cause they fight for. At first, the Bushwhackers stand proud to declare their identities as soldiers in a professional army. Later, it's clear that they've degenerated into a loose band of thieves and murderers. This culminates in Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which a mob of Bushwhackers massacre countless innocent civilians while looting and ransacking the pro-Union town.
'Ride with the Devil' has a few notable action scenes, including some impressive horse riding stunt work, but it's more delicate character drama than blazing war epic. The most significant stretch of the story finds the protagonists hunkering down in a ramshackle bunker for the winter while they wait for the return of better weather. This is where Jewel is introduced as a Southern lady who sneaks the boys food and supplies. I'll be damned, but Lee has found a way to make her character completely sympathetic. A tender romance develops that's rather refreshing in its pragmatism.
Also sympathetic in their portrayals are Maguire and Ulrich, two actors I'm not often impressed by. I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of the accents they attempt, but they seem passable enough, and the performances are otherwise nuanced and engaging. Look for supporting turns from a great cast including Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Rhys Myers, and Jim Caviezel.
'Ride with the Devil' had a limited theatrical run and did almost no business at all. The film was lost in the shuffle of the 1999 release slate, and has been largely forgotten with time. Yet its compelling drama and thematic resonance have held up remarkably well over the last decade. Despite its obscurity, this is an important work from a filmmaker who's made a career of challenging himself to try new things with each movie. The experience of directing action scenes here would lead to his greatest commercial and critical success a year later with 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection has released 'Ride with the Devil' as Spine #514 on both DVD and Blu-ray. The film is under license from original rights holders Universal Studios, which is a fairly rare occurrence. The disc is packaged in one of the studio's clear keepcases with a 28-page booklet. Like all titles from Criterion, the disc has no annoying trailers or promos before the main menu.
The Blu-ray contains only a new 148-minute "Director's Cut" of the film, which runs ten minutes longer than the original theatrical release. Since it had been so long since I'd seen the previous version, nothing in this new cut stood out to me as being new. The movie flows smoothly, without any jarring disruptions.
The liner notes in the accompanying booklet indicate that the 'Ride with the Devil' Blu-ray transfer was supervised by both director Ang Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (of 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild at Heart'). Like many films that Elmes has shot, the photography has a soft texture. Detail is rendered fairly well in the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, but the movie doesn't have the sort of razor sharp pinpoint clarity that we may have come to expect from many modern movies. Nonetheless, this doesn't appear to be the result of any Digital Noise Reduction or other untoward filtering. It's an optical characteristic of the camera lenses used.
Likewise, the 2.35:1 picture has delicate, almost pastel colors and gentle contrasts. Black levels don't run especially deep, but they're not exactly milky either. Film grain is present, especially in dark scenes. It appears to be properly digitized without excess noisiness or compression problems. No edge enhancement, other sharpening artifacts, or contrast boosting are present either. All of this contributes to an appearance that's quite naturalistic and beautiful, almost painterly in quality. Just don't to go in expecting something that looks like 'Speed Racer'.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has very warm, lush musical fidelity. Although this movie is primarily a dialogue-driven drama, the sound mix builds to some impressive thunder during the battle scenes. Gunshots have a nice crack and thump. The tromping of horses brings some satisfying rumble. The surround channels also create aggressive envelopment during shootouts.
The Blu-ray contains the same assortment of bonus features as Criterion's comparable DVD edition.
'Ride with the Devil' is an unfortunately overlooked and underrated film from director Ang Lee. Its release as part of the Criterion Collection will hopefully give it a little bit more of the exposure it deserves. The Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty great. Supplements are interesting and informative, if not overwhelming in volume. This is another fine Criterion release, and certainly comes recommended.