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RIDE WITH THE DEVIL
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, James Caviezel, Thomas Guiry, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Ang Lee
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 148 Minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2010

 

Don't think you are a good man. The thought will spoil you.”

Film ***

I don’t think I’ve seen a more distinctive film about the Civil War than Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil. It covers a chapter that, as far as I know, has never been tackled in any other film. Added to this, it is one of the most beautiful looking period pieces that I have ever seen in my life.

The film, based on the Daniel Woodrell book, “Woe to Live On”, tells of a separate war that was brewing at the same time that the War Between the States had officially begun. In Missouri, a conflict between the Jayhawkers (Union sympathizers) and the Bushwhackers (pro-confederate) had reached its breaking point. It was literally a war where neighbor fought against neighbor, based simply on allegiances.

Caught in the middle of this is young Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), a German immigrant who finds himself fighting alongside the Bushwhackers. He is forced into this by way of loyalty to his friend and neighbor Jack Bull Childes (Skeet Ulrich), whose father is killed by Jayhawkers. Both Jake and Jack Bull pay witness to it.

Cut to one year later, and the two formerly peaceful men are slaughtering every band of Jayhawkers they come across. They have fallen in with a band of Bushwhackers led by Black John Ambrose (James Caviezel). Other members include George Clyde (Simon Baker), who is accompanied by his friend, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), an ex-slave who George purchased and then freed.

After a series of raids and gunfights with their enemy, Jake and Jack Bull take up retreat at a rural hideout during the winter. Jack Bull begins a romance with Sue Lee (Jewel), a widowed daughter of a Southern supporter. But then the war strikes back at a most unexpected moment, and the men are forced out back into battle.

Lee, an established master of purely beautiful filmmaking, is on top of his game here. He and cinematographer Frederick Elmes capture the beauty of the landscape and the entire era so incredibly well, that it’s literally like being transported to the time period. And Lee stages a marvelously intense sequence late in the film during a crucial and bloody battle in Lawrence, Kansas, which had my heart pounding furiously.

I have so much love and admiration for the film, that I almost hate to bring up the couple of flaws it has, because without them this would’ve been a full four star film. Following the Kansas battle sequence, which feels like a fitting point to bring everything to a close, the movie starts to drag a bit as Jake meets up with Sue Lee at the farm she’s been living on since their last encounter.

The final bits in the film do provide solid conclusions to the character arcs, but at the same time there are some odd bits of spontaneous humor thrown into the mix, like Jake having no idea what to do when in the care of Sue Lee’s recently born baby. And the fact that this extended wrap up was taking place after the kind of big battle finale you’d expect a film like to end on made these scenes feel even more out of place. Or maybe there was something more that Lee and screenwriter James Schamus were trying to get across that somehow went over my head. I consider myself a competent film reviewer, but at the same time…nobody’s perfect.

The entire cast is quite terrific. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tobey Maguire, and early in the film I thought he wasn’t going to be able to carry the film through his innocent boy persona. But he really surprised me as the film progressed, and by the end of it I found his performance to be quite strong. The actor who really walks away with the movie, however, is Jeffrey Wright, who takes what is clearly the strongest character in the film and makes Daniel Holt unforgettable through his powerful performance.

And the supporting cast is definitely interesting to watch, since many of these actors have become much more recognizable since this 1999 release. This includes James Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (quite believably scary as a psychopathic bushwhacker), Simon Baker (star of the current TV sensation, The Mentalist), Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson. And though she hasn’t done much acting since, Jewel (who I’ve always been smitten with) does turn in one of the better acting debuts I’ve ever seen from a pop star.

But for me, the biggest star of Ride with the Devil is Ang Lee’s directing. Again, this is one of the most beautiful looking films I’ve EVER seen, and that is no doubt a result of Lee’s endless passion for authentically capturing time periods. In spite of its few flaws, this is a most outstanding example of true epic filmmaking.

Video ****

I’ve wanted to see this film ever since it came out, and having my first viewing by way of this Criterion Blu-ray release, I can’t express how happy I am that I waited as long as I did. I’ve mentioned how beautiful the film is to look at. On Blu-ray, all I can say is that for the entire 148 minutes you’re eyes will be absolutely seduced by the glorious beauty displayed thanks to the hard working folks at Criterion, whose work in HD continues to be a cut above the rest. The transfer was approved by both Ang Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and you can definitely tell through the entire presentation. The detail is absolutely spectacular and the colors, especially the greens of the landscape, will astound the eyes to no end.

Audio ****

A war epic released by Criterion...those words should indicate how riveting the DTS HD mix is. The battle sequences are spread wide throughout the film, but even during the downtime the lossless sound does work wonders with just about every other sound element. Dialogue is heard in tremendous form, the Missouri/Kansas setting provides endless amounts of subtle but effective background and side channel pick up. The music score by Mychael Danna is unquestionably a huge highlight, as are the intense battle and raid sequences. Yet again, Criterion exudes excellence with this release!

Features ***

First off, it should be noted that this is Ang Lee’s Director’s Cut of the film, which includes up to ten minutes worth of additional scenes. Extras-wise, we get two fantastic commentary tracks; the first one is with Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus and the second one features cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg. Also included is a revealing video interview with actor Jeffrey Wright.

Summary:

Ride with the Devil, largely forgotten at the time of its theatrical release, is a most interesting entry in director Ang Lee’s career. It was the first indication that he could go way beyond simple character stories and make lavish, epic productions, which was evident in later films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. If you’ve missed out on this film, then this outstanding Blu-ray release from Criterion is worthy of your time.

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