Ang Lee’s 1999 movie “Ride with the Devil” is a hard movie to take. Not hard because it’s difficult to understand the film’s themes of identity and loyalty, but because the movie is about Southern “Bushwhackers” (i.e. guerilla fighters) during the Civil War, and the film’s heroes are, essentially, Bushwhackers. In this age of political correctness, making a movie about the Civil War and having your heroes wear anything but the blue uniforms of a Union soldier is sacrilege. As such, “Ride with the Devil” was ignored in its initial release 4 years ago. This is a shame because “Devil” is, in many respects, a better movie than “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the film that would finally catapult Lee into mainstream stardom.
“Devil” stars a young Tobey Maguire (“Spiderman”) as Jake Roedel, the son of a German immigrant who, along with childhood friend Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich), runs off to join the Bushwhackers at the outbreak of the Civil War. For Jake, joining the guerillas is more out of loyalty to Jack Bull than any real commitment to the cause of the South. (Jake comes from a poor family, doesn’t own slaves, and his German heritage is constantly used against him by the other Bushwhackers, who calls him “Dutchie”.) It’s during the bloody days of the fighting and the isolated winters when the Bushwhackers “hibernate” that young Jake, who has killed 15 men before his 19th birthday, begins to develop his own identity.
The most interesting thing about “Devil” is just how unsympathetic James Schamus’ screenplay (adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell) is. The film never leans too much toward any one side, but manages to straddle the fence by centering itself with the education of Jake Roedel. The whole notion of right and wrong is further muddled when Jake encounters Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a freed black slave fighting with the Bushwhackers. With his freedom paid for by another Bushwhacker name George (Simon Baker), Holt has joined the racist Southerners out of loyalty, just like Jake. It’s only when the chains of loyalty have been severed that the two men begin to realize they’re lost souls.
“Ride with the Devil” is a Civil War period movie, but there’s no big military battles for you Civil War aficionados out there. Although that doesn’t mean there isn’t any action. The movie features a couple of brutal gun battles and a major engagement later on in the movie when Holt and Jake joins up with Quantrell’s raiders on the real-life (and infamous) Bushwhacker’s bloody revenge campaign through Lawrence, Kansas. But like all of Ang Lee’s movies, “Devil” doesn’t end with a major physical confrontation, but rather with self-realization and renewed purpose.
Besides Lee and collaborator Schamus’ usual good work, “Devil” has an extremely good cast to work with. Long hair and dirty, Tobey Maguire is believable as the teen killer who isn’t exactly sure why he’s a Bushwhacker. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (“Bend It like Beckham”) is also effective as the smiling killer who seems to have joined up with the guerillas out of a need to satisfy his homicidal impulses rather than for a cause. The movie’s real standout is Jeffrey Wright (“D-tox”), who does the best work of his career as a freed slave who is nevertheless still enslaved by his loyalties to the man who purchased his “freedom”. Pop singer Jewel plays a war widow and actually proves to be quite a good actress; it’s a mystery why she hasn’t acted again.
At over 2 hours long, “Ride with the Devil” may be a bit long for some people. Like all of Lee’s movies (with the possible exception of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), “Devil” moves at a leisurely pace that and the calm is only interrupted by the occasional gun battle. The film is less a movie about the Civil War than it is about loyalty and self-identity.
Ang Lee (director) / Daniel Woodrell (novel), James Schamus (screenplay)
CAST: Skeet Ulrich …. Jack Bull Chiles
Tobey Maguire …. Jake Roedel
Jewel Kilcher …. Sue Lee Shelley
Jeffrey Wright …. Daniel Holt