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Film Review: Ride With The Devil

Ride With The Devil (1999; Directed by Ang Lee)

Pony ridin'

Ang Lee’s Civil War-era curiosity is like the Bushwackers it portrays: it rides out of the woods and surprises you now and then, but then disappears from sight for long stretches. Lee is, of course, known for his outsiders’ takes on American subjects, but Ride With The Devil stands closer in quality to his moody, uneven Hulk than to finer-tuned efforts like Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm.

Aided immesurably by James Schamus’ outstanding ear for Confederate slang (the dialogue has the character, rustic wit, and misplaced nobility of the many letters from the era that were woven into Ken Burns’ seminal PBS documentary on the war, and a few likely-authentic letters are read aloud in the film), the film slips along engagingly enough. The structure is that of a shorthand, backwoods War and Peace, wavering from brief, chaotic bursts of violence to lengthy character studies in calmer times. Ambiguity and complexity are the order of the day, of course; this is par for the course for Civil War flicks. If you want Lost Cause hagiography, join the Sons of the Confederacy and get yourself fitted for a nice grey uniform. Still, Ride With The Devil is sometimes so painstakingly built for prestige that even its most ragged and doubtful edges are bevilled down.

The plot is only partly the point, since this is Ang Lee, and he loves his subtle character studies. His cast is much more sprawling than it needs to be, ultimately. Pre-Spidey Tobey Maguire wears his conscience on his sleeve and his hair unfortunately long. Skeet Ulrich, built from the discarded bits of better actors, is the rogueish best friend who simply must bite it. James Caviezel is asked to stare holes through everyone onscreen, and obliges with his usual intensity. Jewel’s bosom can barely be contained by her bodices, but she is a better actress than she is a poet (faint praise indeed) and has a mostly convincing Southern drawl. Jeffrey Wright does good work as always, though his freed slave fighting with the rebels was a lightning rod for misplaced liberal outrage (which partly crippled the film upon its release). Jonathan Brandis (RIP) grows a beard very convincingly. Simon Baker (of The Mentalist fame) plays a doomed dandy. Tom Wilkinson, Zach Grenier, and Mark Ruffalo do well in small roles. Most striking is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose feminine jawline and flowing locks throw his character’s wanton cruelty into sharp, uncomfortable relief. And I swear I saw him sashay at least once.

Ride With the Devil, in summary, comes across like a guerrila but has a gentleman’s sensibility. Perhaps this feeling it puts across is a good match for its subject matter, namely simple rural aristocrats becoming ruthless raiders. But its spikes and lulls are not merely those of narrative pacing but also of significant quality. Ang Lee’s outsider approach doesn’t always work out for the better, and it only occasional does in this film.

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