January 2, 2015

Ride With The Devil

Ride With The Devil (139 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Tobey McGuire, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, James Caviezel, Thomas Guiry, Jonathan Brandis, and Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Ang Lee. Released through Universal Home Video.

What an unfortunate title. I mean, it’s not much better than the title of the book on which this movie is based, “Woe To Live On.” But, “Ride With The Devil” sounds like a really bad, revisionist outlaw western starring Michael Madsen or Craig Sheffer. Or an equally-horrible, pseudo-hip, gang-heist-double-cross-Reservoir-Dog-rip-off-straight-to-video flick starring, well, Michael Madsen or Craig Sheffer. Whoever the monkey-boy exec was over at Universal that ran this title around the “idea” table seemed to completely miss the wagon in inspiration, simply not capturing the subtlety and mature nuance director Ang Lee was able to layer into this fine film.

The story centers around a young German-born, Missouri-raised teen named Jacob Roedel (Tobey McGuire) at the start of the Civil War. German-Americans are considered to be unconditionally aligned with the Union cause, but Jacob, swelling with pride about his adopted State, has joined the Bushwhackers, a scraggly roving band of local men, who lay siege upon the advancing Union (or Jayhawker) regiments. He befriends a charismatic comrade (Skeet Ulrich), a fighting landowner (Simon Baker) and his resourceful, sure-shot slave (Jeffrey Wright). As the North decimates the Bushwhackers through numerous skirmishes, so too does Roedel’s resolve to fight for an unyielding cause begin to whittle away.

As he learns of the common Union soldier’s thoughts about the war by reading correspondence from intercepted mailbags, Roedel gains insight into the wrongs of slavery through scribbled lines like, “What kind of liberty is it that takes the liberty from others.” His evolving friendship with Wright, seeing him as an equal, is gradual and believably introduced through the course of the plot. When the surviving bunch meet up with a widowed girl (Jewel), the validity of family and serenity slowly creep into Roedel’s consciousness.

Ang Lee has always displayed a master’s touch at gently nudging along very idealistic, weighty themes in the most subtle, non-showy ways. The seeds of revelation for the main character practically dissolve into your viewing experience. It is the entire series of events that unfold for Roedel which shape his renewed outlook by film’s end, and if any one of these subtle “lessons” was missing along the way, his transition would not be as believable.

All of the actors are understated and reasonably comfortable in their ‘southern’ identities. Jewel’s feature debut rings true and her transition from girlish flirt (and bigoted belle) to wizened mother, grounded in a deeper understanding of love, is smoothly handled. The camera captures “awareness” behind her expressions, a depth of emotion if you will, that seriously is lacking in many other actresses of her age group. Jeffrey Wright is an absolute marvel to watch in this film. He has all the integrity, gravity, and controlled discipline in his acting skills to match someone more accomplished, like Morgan Freeman, toe-to-toe.

The only real flaw to the movie is found in Tobey Maguire. His main character is an ever-growing, transitional creation, and would be a pleasure to watch almost regardless of who got the role. The actor behind that character, in this case however, unfortunately is a bit of an empty slate. The big, blank eyes, the tortoise-paced movement, and the Ritilan-laced drawl McGuire brought to “The Cider House Rules” and “The Wonder Boys” is starting to wear really thin now and serves to be a bit counterproductive in this endeavor. How is this guy ever going to bring any energy to the role of Spiderman when it starts production soon?

Of course, we all know slavery is bad, and the South should’ve lost the war for that reason alone. But “Ride With The Devil” (there’s that title again, arghh!) deepens this certitude and expounds on other elements of war by successfully examining the very reasons behind those things that are worth fighting for and those that are not.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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