Fanatically eclectic as he is, Ang Lee seems destined to eventually make a Judd Apatow raunch comedy, simply because he hasn’t made one yet. You name it: sci-fi comic book, wuxia pian, “Classics Illustrated” costume romance, gritty bromance indie, earnest family schmaltz, woozy rock musical (sort of), and oh yeah, a war film, easily the most ambivalent battle epic ever made about the Civil War, “Ride with the Devil” (1999), which came and went with barely a whisper of notice.
In several ways, it’s not surprising that this lavish, big-country saga was overlooked (“Like, six people saw it,” co-star Jeffrey Wright says in an interview included in Criterion’s special features). It takes place exclusively in the war-fringe arena of Missouri and Kansas, where North/South, good/bad dichotomies were so muddied by South-sympathizing Northerners and ex-slaves fighting on the rebel side and immigrants being targeted for their nationality alone that it amounted to a free-kill zone, and clear narrative propulsion would therefore be hard to come by. I’ve seen “Ride with the Devil” several times, and I’m still not clear on the characters’ motivational politics, or at least what they’re supposed to mean to the film’s thrust, and this despite an ample amount of expository chitchat.
Today, 11 years after its release, this historical ambiguity seems to be the point that Lee and producer/writer James Schamus were making — to take the most tribal and ethically fraught conflict in American history and open it up beyond the cable TV thumbnail sketches, so that whether we are good slavery-hating, Lincoln-loving liberals or unreconstructed reactionary bigots, we don’t know exactly how to feel about the carnage.
The film’s heroes, as in Buster Keaton’s “The General,” are Union-hating rebels, but in Lee’s film, the boyos — including lovable farm-boy Bushwhackers played by stars Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich — also slaughter innocents and raze homesteads. If they sound like terrorists, that’s because they are — the climactic decimation of Lawrence, Kansas stood as the bloodiest homegrown terrorist act in U.S. history up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and in this film, it’s a wanton act of impulsive fury, little else. What are we to make of it? The textures of Lee’s film are classically stirring and sympathetic, oozing with heroism and tearful sympathy, but the politics of what goes on is another story. We’re not supposed to suspend judgment, are we?
Hence the title? While we’re wondering, the details of “Ride with the Devil” are seductive — the constant letter-reading, the twisty slangy-slash-schoolhouse patois of the era, the relentless confrontation with teenage boys mutilated and converted by fate into homicidal maniacs, the galloping battle scenes that rival Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” for playing-war-in-the-woods excitement. Much of the time “Ride with the Devil” acts like an ordinary, bombastically scored period film, with Maguire and Ulrich rather beautifully limning out a boyhood friendship and cultivating our sympathies despite their guerrilla warfare, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers occupying the opposite ground as a nasty Bushwhacker with so little conscience he’s on the verge of killing his comrades as well. (We meet no Union characters in any depth.)
But it’s not ordinary, in that its ideas about war and the Civil War and terrorism are not expressed on the surface of the film, but somewhere beneath, implicit but always mysterious. It does no good to say, as the filmmakers might, that they were just focused on the characters’ coming-of-age and historical plight – especially as those protagonists are joyfully, enthusiastically blowing civilians’ heads off and betting human scalps in a campfire card game.
It remains a grand, gorgeous pickle of a film, perpetually fascinating for its determination to resist ethical categories. It’s also narratively sludgy — bushwhacking per se had no overriding purpose other than to haphazardly bushwhack, and so Schamus’s script does a good deal of wandering and waiting and then impulsively fighting. Even so, Maguire became a star here, though most people didn’t see it — his cute-crackling delivery of the old dialect (much of it from Daniel Woodrell’s source novel “Woe to Live On”) and huge guileless eyes consistently disarm you, and ground the film with conviction. (There’s never a moment where you catch Maguire trying to be cool, which of course the entire cast is, in their woolen waistcoats, trail-beaten dusters and Metallica haircuts.)
But despite Maguire and the stunt casting of the perfectly adept, butter-almond-ice-cream visage of Jewel as a rural love interest (Rhys-Meyers’s absurdly swishy sociopath doesn’t fare as well), the real prize is Wright, as an ex-slave dragged into fighting against the Union by a childhood friendship, cagey and glowering and slowly discovering what his next step must be as an emancipated man. Lee’s film is large but its small things are what catch you, like Wright’s guttural, secretive concept of how to deliver his ex-slave’s shrugging speech patterns, which fall out in such distinctive rhythms that you suspect that the actor had somehow learned it firsthand.