23 June 2002 | jhclues
A Ride with Ang Lee
The War Between the States was perhaps the darkest hour in the history of America; a war that pitted brother against brother and family against family and left scars that even today have not yet healed, and in all probability never will. And, as in any story about any war, beyond any historical significance it is the personal discord behind the greater conflict that creates the emotional impetus that makes it involving. It is the human element that renders the context necessary to give it perspective, which is what director Ang Lee provides in `Ride With the Devil,' a Civil War drama in which he focuses on the personal travails within the broader depiction of the War itself, and along the way manages to include an examination of one of the bloodiest chapters of the War, the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, by Quantrill and his raiders, which he succeeds in presenting quite objectively from the Confederate point-of-view.
In 1863, the Union influence predominates in the State of Kansas, and even across the border in neighboring Missouri, those with Confederate loyalties are finding it increasingly difficult to hold out against the encroaching Northerners, especially without the aid of what could be considered any `regular' Confederate troops. And when things begin to really heat up around their own town, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) form a band of their own and join in the fray, doing damage to the Union cause wherever it is practicable. Jack Bull and Jake do not like the War and do not like killing; but they are standing up for what they believe to be right.
There are others, however, even among their own, men like the young Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who will use the conflict as a vehicle for personal gain and as nothing more than an excuse to express their own violent nature through unnecessary brutality, perpetrated in many instances against innocent victims. And so, for Jack Bull and Jake, as well as many just like them, it becomes a time in which loyalty and moral judgments will be sorely tested; a time during which their souls will be tempered in blood. And they will have to ride with the very Devil himself, against seemingly insurmountable odds.
As with all of his films, director Ang Lee approaches his story through an incisive, yet subtle examination of the traditions, cultural aspects and moral attitudes of the people and times he is depicting. And in so doing, Lee provides his audience with at least some understanding of his subject that goes beyond the actual story and ultimately offers, perhaps, a deeper grasp of the motivations that propel his characters and the drama in which they are engaged. Whether it's the traditions and customs that account for the relationship between a father and his daughters (`Eat Drink Man Woman'), the effects of class distinction (`Sense and Sensibility'), the honor and code by which a warrior lives and dies (`Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon') or the moral ambiguities fostered by a lack of all of the above (`The Ice Storm'), Lee infuses his films with insights into the human condition that take them to a higher level. This film is no exception; and (as he does with all his films), Lee presents his story with the aid of breathtaking cinematography (in this film, by Frederick Elmes, who also did `The Ice Storm' brilliantly), which under his guidance is nothing less than visual poetry. It's that special Lee touch, and it adds a wistful, reflective sense to whatever story he is telling, which is one of the elements that make his films so memorable.
As Jake, Tobey Maguire initially brings a sense of youthful innocence to the film that contrasts so effectively with the maturity he conveys later on as the story develops, and his character along with it. Most importantly, Maguire convincingly and believably responds to the events that unfold around him, which adds to the credibility of the overall film and underscores the realism of the presentation: His stoic acceptance of death and the news of those `murdered' in the various skirmishes and battles; the moral propriety to which those he encounters adhere, even in such troubled times; the betrayal, which because of the nature of the conflict is almost commonplace; and the loyalty and beliefs to which he and his companions cling adamantly. It is all of this that Maguire achieves through his performance, and it is no small accomplishment. It is, however, the kind of studied, understated performance that is often taken for granted, which is unfortunate; work like this is worthy of acclaim, and should be recognized.
Skeet Ulrich is effective, as well, as Jack Bull, and Jewel (in her motion picture debut) turns in an engaging performance as Sue Lee Shelley. It is Jeffrey Wright, however, who stands out in a notable supporting role as Daniel Holt, as well as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who brings a chilling Christopher Walken-like menace to his role of Pitt. Also, in what amounts to a cameo role (one scene), Mark Ruffalo leaves an indelible impression with very little screen time.
The supporting cast includes James Caviezel (Black John), Simon Baker (George Clyde), Tom Guiry (Riley), Tom Wilkinson (Orton Brown), John Ales (Quantrill), John Judd (Otto Roedel) and Kathleen Warfel (Mrs. Chiles). The Civil War will forever be an open wound upon the nation; but hopefully, as time goes on, it will be through the objective contemplations of filmmakers like Ang Lee and films like `Ride With the Devil' that will ultimately help to close the schism and promote healing. In light of more recent events, it is something that is sorely needed, worldwide. Film is a powerful medium; it can be educational as well as entertaining, and perhaps in the future more filmmakers, like Ang Lee, will embrace and promote a sense of unity through the sensitive depiction of the events and attitudes that make us what we are. 8/10.