Immediately prior to making the Civil War epic Ride With The Devil, Ang Lee directed Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm; immediately after, he made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Ride With The Devil fits neatly between those four films, in that it’s a combat-ridden story deeply concerned with social propriety. Tobey Maguire stars as a German immigrant who joins the Missouri guerrilla fighters known as the “bushwhackers” out of loyalty to his friend Skeet Ulrich, to help him avenge his murdered father. The bushwhackers rely on a network of Confederate sympathizers, and though their real loyalty is to Missouri (and to each other), they demand to be treated like soldiers, and try to abide by some of the more gentlemanly rules of combat. They’re beholden to the tactics of ambush and deceit, but when penned in by the Union at a farmhouse, they make sure their enemy won’t kill the women they’re staying with. Yet in their own ranks, they have a freed slave (Jeffrey Wright), and no one’s exactly sure whether to regard him as a colleague, a servant, or a potential traitor. More than anything, Ride With The Devil deals with how trust collapses when a society wars with itself.
Ride With The Devil was intended more for the mainstream than the arthouse, but it never got out of the starting gate. The movie had a limited release in the thick of the 1999 awards season—one of the best years for film in recent memory—and though the critics were respectful, few were wildly enthusiastic. James Schamus’ script (adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe To Live On) was knocked for its writerly dialogue, which sounds especially odd in Maguire’s soft tones. The story was also criticized for its long stretches of inaction, as Maguire and his comrades wait out the winter in a dugout in the woods, and later heal from battle wounds in the countryside.
But the dialogue gives Ride With The Devil its own offbeat personality, and the pace—now even more deliberate in Criterion’s 150-minute director’s cut—is necessary to convey Maguire’s gradual change. Ride With The Devil contrasts the classic Americana of small towns and farms with the violence and noise that overtook them, and it shows how a fervor for justice and honor can fade over the years, especially when a soldier is within hiking distance of a familiar civilization. Lee and Schamus superbly illustrate the confusion of the times, and how men who joined the cause to defend their families were ordered to train their guns on civilians who looked just like their own fathers and brothers. Ride With The Devil is about how people stew over decisions made rashly. It’s great that the movie itself has stuck around long enough to be similarly reassessed.
Key features: Two commentary tracks (one by Lee and Schamus, another by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and other crew members), plus an excellent interview with Wright about the film’s racial politics and historical meaning.