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In this Civil War film, director Ang Lee treats the American South with some sympathy and dignity. We’d seen his excellent work in The Ice Storm, and now he shows his great ability to cut right to the point of the Civil War. It’s not a political diatribe against slavery, but a careful explanation of the effects of a war that divided communities.
Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is the Missouri-based son of an impoverished German immigrant, whose lineage earns Jake the nickname Dutchy. He is part of a poorly organised group that rages guerrilla warfare against Union loyalists. His fellow bushwhackers are Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker), and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). It was the wiping out of Chiles’ family by Union marauders that caused the formation of their “army”. Clyde, the typical Southern gentleman, is at war to preserve his way of life, and Holt, an interesting character in his own right, is a black ex-slave who fights for the South out of a sense of allegiance to Clyde, who bought and then freed him. Holt fights along Clyde only through this bond. The story develops over the course of a winter, while the four men hide out in a crudely built shelter on the property of the pro-Confederacy Evans family. A young widow in the household, Sue Lee Shelly (Jewel) becomes involved with Chiles, and Clyde is often away visiting a local lady friend. Roedel and Holt have the opportunity to forge a firm friendship.
Lee;s film really hits stride with the frequent action sequences, notably the lengthy passage when the blood thirsty outlaw Quantrill (John Ales), the notorious Bushwhacker leader, charges through Lawrence, Kansas (a Union stronghold) wipes out the town. Lee acquits himself expertly with the fine choreography of the violence. History has documented the raid as a cold-blooded massacre, and the film bears this out.
It is the unlikely friendship and alliances that are forged during this adventure. Jake and Daniel stumble through the killings and tragedies around them,. When we see Pitt Mackerson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) meting out mass murder, it is Jake who stands up to Mackerson to prevent him from killing townspeople who serve him and Daniel a meal. They incurred their own injuries and Jake then backs his way into marrying Sue Lee. He comes of age.
“Ride With The Devil” works very well although the bond between Jake and Daniel could have been further explored in the race relations issue. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Frederik Elmes (worked on Blue Velvet), and the acting talent of Maguire, Ulrich and Wright, in particular, are strong and dynamic. Jewel is a welcome participant in her debut role, not merely a distraction, as she gives a pleasant performance in looking for a man to take care of her, and her newborn child, in the struggle for a peaceful existence. She comes through as a natural performer. Overall, the film demands certain patience, but Ang Lee generally provides intricate details of the war saga and a poignant portrayal. It’s an effective tale of America’s most difficult conflict.