Ride with the Devil
Directed by Ang Lee
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 148 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: April 27, 2010
Review Date: April 11, 2010
Give director Ang Lee a period drama, and chances are he’ll deliver something amazing and memorable. From Sense and Sensibility to The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain, the man never seems to have met a historical period that he wasn’t instantly in harmony with. The Civil War era that forms the backdrop of the dramatic action in Ride with the Devil might have been seen in movies as far back as The Birth of a Nation, but this lengthy, character-intense historical fiction portrays aspects of the War Between the States that haven’t been seen to great, truthful effect in previous pictures dealing with this terrible time in American history. Ride with the Devil ranks among the best films in Lee’s impressive list of credits and a film that though cruelly overlooked on its initial release deserves a second chance to make a case for its greatness.
Varying combative forces in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War divide themselves into the Confederate-sympathizing Bushwhackers and the Union-leaning Jayhawkers. Teenaged Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) join a colorful gang of Bushwhackers (renowned for their expert riding skills and their uncanny ability to melt into the Missouri forests and ambush Union armies who come near them). Along the way, Jake and Jack are paired with George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) for a winter encampment during which time Jack meets and falls in love with local widow Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel). Knowing there is more fighting in their future, none of the men can make long-range plans until it’s clear the war is lost or over.
The novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell forms the basis of the wonderfully intense screenplay by James Schamus. To the credit of the writer, nothing is painted in black and white terms insofar as country loyalty or treason is concerned. It’s a refreshing adult approach to resist hero and villain labels and instead focus on people as individuals doing what they think right in an impossible and harrowingly dangerous situation in the Midwest during the Civil War. We see characters grow close or farther apart as time and the war take a toll on their emotional stability. There are wonderful in-jokes and joshing between the men as various formalities of the time continue to be observed despite the obvious changes their world is undergoing. And, of course, director Lee films three lengthy battles in all of their viciously bloody horror with the full Panavision widescreen used for the film’s climactic standoff: first in a slaughter in Lawrence, Kansas, and then outside town as the Bushwhackers come face to face with a large contingent of Union soldiers. The visceral sights and sounds of battle are not shied away from though to his credit, the director doesn’t revel in the gore and uses certain discretion in particular key moments of combat and in later sequences showing the primitive attempts at life saving.
An astonishing cast of young actors all make indelible impressions in key roles. Tobey Maguire, who had been so unforgettable in Lee’s previous The Ice Storm, undergoes some enormous growth in characterization as the young in years but old in spirit Jake Roedel. Skeet Ulrich has wonderfully dynamic camaraderie with Maguire as his best friend Jack Bull Chiles. Jeffrey Wright, whose character undergoes a literal and emotional emancipation during the course of the movie, is very moving as the loyal but proud freed slave Holt. Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings a new level of insanity to his unstable warrior Pitt Mackeson. Other strong supporting turns are contributed by Simon Baker, James Caviezel, Thomas Guiry, and Mark Ruffalo. Jewel, as the token love interest first for Ulrich and then for Maguire, shows inexperience and a certain lack of flair as the young widow who’s eager to begin life anew. Among the adults, Tom Wilkinson, Margo Martindale, and Celia Weston all contribute enjoyable and believable portrayals.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully presented in a transfer that’s anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is clean and very colorful (greens especially pop in this transfer), and flesh tones are very realistic. While black levels could have gone a shade darker for optimum impact, shadow detail is nicely delivered. Only a soft shot or two takes anything away from the otherwise sharp, solid visual presentation. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track puts the viewer right into the midst of the battle scenes with gloriously presented split surrounds that feature bullets whizzing all around and various effects and music channeled through the entire soundstage. Mychael Danna’s triumphant music also adds depth and color to the sound presentation, most impressive especially in light of the small budget the filmmakers had at their disposal.
There are two audio commentaries. In the first director, Ang Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus (seemingly recorded separately and combined) alternately discuss cut scenes which have been put back into this disc presentation as well as casting decisions, scenes not in the book added to the film, among other topics. The second features production designer Mark Friedberg, sound designer Drew Kunin, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (all together during the recording session) discussing the movie from their own perspectives. Both are interesting and worthwhile discussions of the film.
Actor Jeffrey Wright speaks for 14 ¾ minutes on how he got cast for the film, the boot camp he was part of during the weeks of preproduction, his approach to his character, and why he finds the movie so fulfilling and his favorite among his movies thus far. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 30-page booklet features a cast and crew list, a complete chapter listing, some color stills and publicity shots from the movie as well as some historical photographs of the period, and a historical background and film critique essay by movie critic Godfrey Cheshire plus historical essays by Godfrey Cheshire and historian Edward E. Leslie.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Ride with the Devil joins the increasingly impressive list of masterful Ang Lee period dramas. With a mature script that doesn’t simplify or whitewash the actual events of the Missouri-Kansas skirmishes of the Civil War period, Ride with the Devil should find a welcome audience on home video. It comes highly recommended!