movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Ride With the Devil
Director Ang Lee has built a career on finely-detailed dramas (e.g., The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility) that focus on the private lives of their main characters. In the past, his movies have featured little action. Most battles were fought in drawing rooms and bedrooms. So at first glance, Lee seems an odd choice to film a movie, Ride With the Devil, about one of the most notorious incidents of the entire Civil War--the Lawrence, Kansas massacre. On an August day in 1863, William Quantrill led a group of almost 350 bushwhackers on an early morning assault. The guerrillas pillaged and burned much of the town--and killed more than 180 men and boys.

Surprisingly, however, Ang Lee has built a movie that focuses more attention upon the participants, especially upon the Southern supporters who practiced hit-and-run guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Kansas, than he has upon the historically significant major events. This will no doubt confuse many filmgoers who come to the movie expecting non-stop action sequences. The raid on Lawrence itself, for example, has been reduced to less than 10 minutes of film time. Instead, following the main dramatic thrust of Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On, upon which Ride With the Devil was based, Lee focuses attention upon a relatively small band of bushwhackers played by Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, and a handful of others. Lee is quite content to focus his camera on the moments between the skirmishes, when the guerrillas drop their game faces and they talk about their fears and desires. In one sequence, the soldiers plead for one of their literate comrades to read them a letter from a U.S. Mail pouch, any letter.

Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich) just wants a little time alone with a local woman (Jewel) who has been bringing the boys vittles while they wait out the winter in a shack dug into a hillside. Jake Roedel (Maguire) is Jack's best friend. He's a soft-spoken, seemingly-gentle man who has committed himself to the bushwhackers, but doubts continue to pull at him. Among the fellow bushwhackers, he sees fanaticism that borders on psychotic behavior. In particular, a suspicious and sadistic soldier named Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) takes delight in suggesting that Jake can't be trusted: Jake's parents are German and Germans typically sided with the North.

This confrontation between Jake Roedel and Pitt Mackeson builds around one of the movie's main themes: the difficulties that citizens faced when attempting to remain neutral. Guerrillas such as Mackeson assumed that if you weren't with them you must be against them. So families were pushed to make decisions and take stands.

The movie also gives us Jeffrey Wright as a black bushwhacker named Daniel Holt. Through dedication to the man/owner who treated him well, Holt joins the bushwhackers and becomes one of their most accomplished soldiers. (It may be difficult for us to comprehend today, but historical evidence suggests that several black men did indeed willingly fight for the South.) Dissatisfaction constantly eats away at Holt. Fellow bushwhackers threaten to kill him just for spite, but he keeps his dissatisfaction under control.

As the movie progresses, Jake Roedel and Daniel Holt are forced to spend more and more time together. In the process, a friendship develops between the two men. They don't have a lot to talk about, but they respect and trust each other. And trust was in mighty short supply in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War.

While the movie focuses upon these characters, it doesn't completely forgo action sequences. In particular, the movie contains a stunning sequence where Jack, Jake, Holt, and a dozen other bushwhackers are surrounded in a cabin by Jayhawkers and Federal troops. Bullets whiz overhead like clouds of locusts, occasionally ripping into men, who unceremoniously crumple. This sequence is almost as impressive as Steven Spielberg's much longer Normandy beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. It contains flashes of macho heroics, as when the surrounded bushwhackers use shotgun blasts to loosen the cabin's sideboards. Then they crash through the wall and run for the woods amidst a hail of bullets. But Lee doesn't milk these scenes dramatically. This definitely isn't Young Guns.

Screenwriter James Schamus prefers to provide us with scenes that evoke Jake's longing to simply get away from the carnage and live a normal life. But he doesn't know what normal is any longer. Friends urge him to get together with Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), but his strong friendship with Jack Bull keeps him from doing what seems logical to everyone else. In his mind, she is Jack's. In a sense, Jake becomes enslaved to Jack, much like Daniel Holt has been enslaved to his sense of duty and the man that spared his life.

One of Ride With the Devil's main accomplishments is the way it instills a sense of humanity in the participants. With one curious exception (Pitt Mackeson), no one is vilified. The movie leaves us with an overwhelming sense of loss--both for the men who died and for the lives that were horribly altered, on both sides. At the same time, the movie avoids the obvious conflicts. For example, Daniel Holt's confusion about the role that he played during the Civil War isn't resolved with speeches about racism and prejudice. Ride With the Devil is a more complex movie than that. Instead, his dissatisfaction manifests itself subtly in Holt's submissively hunched shoulders and his averted gaze. (Jeffrey Wright gives one of the year's best supporting performances as Holt.)

My only complaint about Ride With the Devil is the stilted dialog that frequently comes from the mouths of the main characters during the movie's first hour. Maguire and Ulrich, in particular, struggle with the political dialog, with little feeling for the concepts that they're uttering. But once Jake and Jack become bushwhackers, the movie acquires a plaintive, mournful atmosphere, especially once Sue Lee enters the story (singer Jewel in a surprisingly strong performance).

Ride With the Devil is one of the best movies ever made about the Civil War.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]