Reviewed by GREG KING.
In 1861, the Civil War was just erupting. But while the conflict threatened to engulf and divide the whole country, another, more obscure, little guerrilla war was being fought near the border between Kansas and Missouri, almost as a side-show to the main event. Bands of rival vigilante armies, known as the Bushwhackers and the Jayhawkers, were waging a bitter war. This ongoing campaign of hit-and-run strikes culminated in the brutal massacre and burning of the town of Lawrence.
Against this violent and chaotic background, Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, etc) tells a more personal story of some of the young men who came of age in this conflict. There is a subtle irony in that many youngsters, barely out of their teens, knew nothing of love and intimacy yet were experts in the arts of killing, and wore this as a sort of badge of honour.
The central character in this bloody but fascinating film is Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire, recently seen in The Cider House Rules, etc). The son of a German immigrant, Jake is reluctantly drawn into the conflict by his best friend Jack Chiles (Skeet Ulrich, recently seen in Chill Factor, etc), seeking revenge for the murder of his father. The pair join the guerrilla army, led by self-styled general Black Jack (Jim Caviezel, from The Thin Red Line, etc), and become involved in a series of bloody skirmishes. During a particularly harsh winter they are temporarily forced to hide out, which is how they meet the beautiful young widow Sue Lee (pop star Jewel, in a confident debut). Sue Lee temporarily gives them some peace and respite from the brutality of war. Eventually a relationship develops between Jake and Sue Lee that enables him to put the war into perspective.
Ride With The Devil explores in often brutal fashion the futility and inhumanity of war and the pointless waste of young lives. However, unlike Robert Maxwell’s brilliant Gettysburg, which recreated one of the most decisive battles in the Civil War, Ride With The Devil finds no noble or heroic acts here. The film doesn’t choose sides, but Lee depicts the entire affair as a grubby, mercenary little war fought out of vengeance and petty spite. He even manages to give the film some contemporary overtones as the conflict depicted here deliberately reminds audiences of the bloody civil wars raging in central Europe today. Lee has previously demonstrated an ability to visually recreate other cultures, whether it be the proper England of Jane Austen or the sexual revolution and dysfunctional families of 1970′s America. With Ride With The Devil he beautifully recreates the old west, although he does tend to romanticise it a little too much, with often lyrical scenes. Lee gives this often brutal and bloody story an appropriately epic sweep that vividly illuminates his themes, although the violence is at times quite graphic.
The film is well-crafted, and bristles with authenticity. Frederick Elmes’ lavish cinematography beautifully frames the action and captures gorgeous vistas and landscapes. Mychael Danna’s evocative and liltingly haunting score richly enhances the sumptuous visual style.
Lee has assembled a stellar cast of cinematic young guns to bring to life the characters. Maguire (with whom he previously worked in The Ice Storm), as usual, is excellent, and brings a touch of dignity and intelligence to his character. The cast also includes Aussie Simon Baker (who is beginning to carve out a nice career for himself in big budget Hollywood films), The Velvet Goldmine’s Jonathan Rhys Myers (wonderfully cast as a psychopathic killer), and Jeffrey Wright (best known for his performance as the tragically doomed artist Basquiat). The performances are all solid, and bring some depth to the otherwise grim and occasionally harrowing material.