Wednesday November 24, 1999
It's been decades since the phrase "Bleeding Kansas" and the dark figure of pro-Confederate raider William C. Quantrill, mentor to outlaws Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger, were familiar on-screen presences. But once upon a time TV westerns and even B-pictures like "Dark Command," "Kansas Raiders" and "Quantrill's Raiders" often focused on this bloody sideshow of the Civil War, with friends fighting friends in vicious guerrilla warfare along the Kansas-Missouri border.
"Ride With the Devil," a serious film with a lot on its mind, is probably the most intelligent treatment of this period we've had, so far removed from the previous pulp versions of the era that it doesn't even try to work the James brothers into the story.
But while intelligence and restraint are good things, "Ride With the Devil" sounds more interesting than it plays. A long, finally baffling movie about young people attempting to find themselves amid the meaningless carnage of war, it's oddly distant and uninvolving for such a blazing subject, managing to feel bloodless despite re-creating a notably bloody period of American history.
Taiwanese director Ang Lee, in a pattern reminiscent of John Sayles' explorations of Americana, seems determined to use film to investigate wildly different aspects of the past. Following his great success with his contemporary "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," he took on 18th century England in "Sense and Sensibility" and 1970s suburbia in "The Ice Storm" before turning to 19th century America this time around.
Unfortunately, as "The Ice Storm" demonstrated, Lee can be an almost anti-dramatic director whose dispassionate approach to passionate material leaves you wondering if there's a more exciting movie lurking around somewhere that never made it to the screen.
Not helping this situation is an unwieldy decision made by Ang and screenwriter and longtime collaborator James Schamus (who adapted the script from a 1987 novel by Daniel Woodrell called "Woe to Live On") to have the characters speak with an archaic and stilted formality. This may or may not be true to the period--there's no one alive to tell us, after all--but, authentic or not, that troublesome language creates an additional barrier between the characters and the audience.
While the excessive modernity of the words "The Messenger" gives Joan of Arc and her gang presents problems of its own, going to the other extreme and having an entire film filled with lines like "It surely does seem so, it surely does" and "It's not much to gaze upon but I reckon we could assay some hospitality" is just as off-putting and even more distancing.
Handling most of the dialogue are two childhood friends now all grown up: Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), a Missourian from a long Southern line, and Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), who feels Southern but is in fact the son of staunchly pro-Union German immigrants. "You'll always be a German to them, no matter who you're friends with," his wise old father tells him, but does Jake listen? No, he does not.
Though "Ride" opens just before the start of the Civil War, that conflict begins soon enough and Jack Bull and Jake are found riding with the Bushwackers, a group of irregulars who chose to do their fighting close to home. With their elaborate long hair and dandified clothes, the Bushwackers look like a '60s rock band--think the Allman Brothers with repeater rifles--but they kill as readily, if not more so, as their elders.
As his father predicted, Jake, known as Dutchie to his comrades because of his German origins, is not treated as one of the gang, and young psychopath Pitt Mackeson ("Velvet Goldmine's" haughty Jonathan Rhys Meyers) seems especially determined to mistrust him whenever possible.
Dutchie's outsider status slowly brings him closer to Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a freed slave who is fighting for the South alongside his former master and best friend George Clyde (Simon Baker). Further complications ensue when these men winter together near the home of Sue Lee Shelly (singer Jewel, in her film debut), a comely young war widow whose father is also a Southern sympathizer.
"Ride With the Devil" does not stint on battles, including a full-scale re-creation of Quantrill's infamous raid on the barely defended Union center of Lawrence, Kan., and Schamus' script has some effective if familiar moments, like Dutchie reading to his fellow Bushwackers stolen letters intended for opposing soldiers who will never get those comforting words from home.
Though the film's overall pace is so phlegmatic that nonprofessional Jewel's lack of experience barely registers, some actors do excellent work. Tony Award winner Wright, memorable in the title role of the otherwise forgettable "Basquiat," has been given less painfully archaic dialogue than his comrades-in-arms and benefits accordingly. And the once-boyish Maguire shows an increased maturity that suits him well.
But too much of "Ride With the Devil" is taken up with not very fascinating young people clumsily attempting to discover meaning in life, a scenario not any more compelling with a 19th century setting than a 20th. Unable to find a focus that holds our interest, what we have on screen is well described by a bit of its own pseudo-folksy dialogue: "It ain't right, it ain't wrong, it just is."
Ride With the Devil, 1999. R, for graphic war violence. Universal Pictures presents a Good Machine Production, released by USA Films. Director Ang Lee. Producers Ted Hope, Robert F. Colesberry, James Schamus. Executive producer David Linde. Screenplay James Schamus, based on the novel "Woe to Live On" by Daniel Woodrell. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Editor Tim Squyres. Costumes Marit Allen. Music Mychael Danna. Production design Mark Friedberg. Art director Steve Arnold. Set decorator Stephanie Carroll. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. Janet McTeer as Mary Jo Walker. Kimberly J. Brown as Ava Walker. Gavin O'Connor as Jack Ranson. Jay O. Sanders as Dan. Skeet Ulrich as Jack Bull Chiles. Tobey Maguire as Jake Roedel. Jewel as Sue Lee Shelley. Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt. Simon Baker as George Clyde. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Pitt Mackeson.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun