While taking his citizenship test, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon learned how to think like an American:
Proctor: "What was the cause of the Civil War?"
Apu: "Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–"
Proctor: "Wait wait… just say slavery."
Apu: "Slavery it is, sir!"
It has perhaps become too trendy today to say that the American Civil War wasn't about slavery. It certainly was, but as Apu notes there were a host of other motivations. "Ride with the Devil" (1999) adds one more reason to the list: sheer malice.
Director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus, adapting the Daniel Woodrell novel "Woe to Live On," focus their attention on the Western theater. In Missouri, the war was not fought by "official" armies as much as by local guerilla factions: the bushwhackers (Confederate sympathizers) and the jayhawkers (Union supporters). Every state was divided to some degree during the Civil War but Missouri's conflict was particularly keen as it was a slave-owning Union state that sent a substantial number of troops to both armies.
The film follows a small loosely-knit unit of bushwhackers who grow increasingly bloodthirsty as the war escalates. Lee does little to romanticize their cause. They fight for home and family, sure, but at the root of it all is an adolescent lust for vengeance at all costs. In order to mete out their brand of justice, they have to swallow an "us vs. them" rhetoric that renders the jayhawkers non-human and thus easier to kill. The bushwhackers execute men and teenaged boys in cold blood though to maintain their self-delusion as "honorable" Southern men, they never harm women (other than shooting down their men and sons in front of them). The jayhawkers are no more merciful.
In the film's climactic scene, the ragtag band rides into Lawrence, Kansas and massacres the male population, ostensibly in retaliation for the alleged Union killing of several Southern women. Films like ‘Gettysburg" have shown the savagery of Civil War battle, but always with an emphasis on the heroism displayed by both sides. Lee provides the counterpoint, emphasizes the brutality of the slaughter (it can't be called a battle) and the sheer futility of it all. It is done for nothing more than anger and hatred. It is sick, stupid, and utterly pointless. The Lawrence massacre provides no catharsis, only a sense of despair at the state of the human condition and at young men turned psychopaths.
It's all a tough sell for audiences who like their battles dressed up as heroic narratives, and the film was indeed a total flop at the box office. But Lee orients the audience to the gruesome story in the usual way, by focusing on a few sympathetic outsiders. Decidedly out of place among these vengeful warriors is Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) whose own status as a Southern man is rendered ambiguous by his German ancestry. He is dubbed "Dutchy" by compatriots who eye the "foreigner" suspiciously. Even more on the fringe of the group is Holt (Jeffrey Wright) a freed slave who fights with the bushwhackers out of loyalty to his childhood friend George Clyde (Simon Baker). At first Holt is known only as "George Clyde's pet nigger," but as the film progresses he not only proves himself in battle but asserts himself more and more among his peers, and his personal growth mirrors that of the nation's.
Maguire's performance is a decidedly oddball one that initially seems as anachronistic as Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain" or Rene Zellweger in "Appaloosa" or Renee Zellweger in "Leatherheads," but his goofy, earnest charm wins out. Jake is an innocent who has killed 15 men before he has ever slept with a woman. Wright, recently coming off his breakthrough role in "Basquiat" (1996), is sensational and it's fair to say the film wouldn't work without his nuanced and vital work. Jewel turns in a quiet and convincing performance as the love interest and Jonathan Rhys Meyers smolders as the most murderous of the bushwhackers.
"Ride with the Devil" provided Lee his first opportunity to direct action scenes, and the results are mixed. An early siege sequence is a masterpiece of precise coverage and marrow-cut editing that keeps a host of characters involved in a very fast-moving scene. Lee is somewhat less successful at staging larger outdoor battle sequences where men and horses do a lot of shuffling about, but it's a convincing war movie and Lee has subsequently proven he's no slouch at staging action set pieces. Forget about "Crouching Tiger," his underrated "Hulk" has some of the best battles in any CGI super-hero film.
The film was initially released in theaters in a version chopped down by the studio over Lee's lukewarm objections – he had already moved on to "Crouching Tiger" and didn't have final cut anyway. This Criterion release offers the restored director's cut. I have never seen the theatrical version, so I can't attest to the relative merits of the two versions and the Criterion package contains very little information about the changes between them. Some online sources (IMDB, some retail outlets) indicate that this cut is 160 minutes long but it is, as listed on the back of the DVD, 148 minutes.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-Ray is certainly more detailed than the SD release, but it doesn't represent a substantial upgrade in image quality. Colors are a little sharper but not by a whole lot –the greens definitely pop. Sunlight is soft and beautiful. But compared to other Blu-Ray releases by Criterion this month ("Vivre sa vie" and "Summer Hours") it isn't quite as amazing. Still, it's a very strong transfer.
The film is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The improvement over the SD is much more noticeable with the audio than the video. The action scenes are packed with off-screen sounds: gunshots, horses whinnying, etc. and the lossless surround track captures it all quite well. None of the effects are mixed so loudly they dominate the audio or overwork the bass.
Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
There is surprisingly little included.
The only featurette is a 15-minute interview with Jeffrey Wright which is excellent and well worth your time.
The film is accompanied by two commentary tracks. The first features Ang Lee and James Schamus. The second features cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg. I have not had the opportunity to listen to the second one. The Lee/Schamus track, of which I have sampled a half hour or so, is fairly mundane in my opinion, covering the usual bases (production history, etc.) in moderate detail.
Surprisingly the commentary track is the only source for any information about the director's cut, and you would have to listen to the entire commentary to find out which scenes were added. I would have expected Criterion to include something separate either on the disc or in the liner notes specifically about the changes made, but no such luck.
The 28-page insert booklet focuses mostly on historical information about Missouri during the Civil War and includes two essays by critic Godfrey Cheshire and essay by author and historian Edward E. Leslie.
"Ride with the Devil" was a complete disaster at the box office, leaving theaters in the blink of an eye. This restored director's cut proves that it deserved a better fate. I have no idea if it is superior to the theatrical cut. It drags in a few places, but its revisionist take on the Civil War, enlivened by Jeffrey Wright's performance as Holt, makes it a rather unusual and harrowing entry in the genre. Criterion seems to have settled for just providing the director's cut rather than trying to dig up more supplemental material but you do get two commentary tracks if that's your thing. Available both in SD and Blu-Ray. Recommended.