Director Ang Lee’s 1999 film Ride With The Devil is very much in aesthetic tune with many of the man’s other decidedly lightweight films, like The Ice Storm, The Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the atrocious Brokeback Mountain. It basically drapes a melodramatic soap operatic plot over what could be fodder for a great filmic drama. Instead, we get, at best, a hit and miss film that has moments that are as bad as those in Brokeback Mountain, and a few as good as any ever filmed, which points out that Lee simply has no vision as a director. On the negative side is the stunt casting of then-hot singer Jewel (Kilcher) as war widow Sue Lee Shelley, an anomic screenplay that tosses loads of characters at the viewer in the first 10 or 15 minutes, expecting one to sympathize with them, and simply letting the 148-minute film (The Director’s Cut in the new The Criterion Collection edition) go on about 30-40 minutes too long to hold interest.
Going in reverse order, most of the scenes added back in (as confirmed in a commentary by Lee and his screenwriter, James Schamus) simply do not advance the plot, and, despite Lee’s claims, do not add anything to the milieu either. In short, the studio hacks were right: the film was too long even in its initial release. Adding back almost 20 minutes of footage detracts greatly from the, to be generous, mediocre original film. Second, out of the cast of characters thrust at the viewer, the only one, outside of lead actor Tobey Maguire’s Jake ‘Dutchy’ Roedel, is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ psycho-effeminate Pitt Mackeson. Meyers’ portrayal, in fact, is the only arguably great thing in this film. Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave character, Daniel Holt, is a relative dullard and bore, while Jewel’s essay as Sue Lee is utterly inert. There is not a single moment one does not see her attempting to ‘act.’ Other than the obvious, hoping to cash in on her then mega-celebrity, there simply is no reason for her to be in this film, and a good screenwriter would have excised her character, and the subplot of her romances with Chiles and Roedel, for both dramatic and time considerations (losing her character would have gotten rid of more than the 30-40 extraneous minutes suggested above).
The actual story (from a novel, Woe To Live On, by Daniel Woodrell) has potential, but screenwriter Schamus dilutes it with too many characters, and takes far too long to get to the central event of the film, the 1863 Lawrence, Kansas Massacre led by William Quantrill and his band of Raiders. It was one of the worst atrocities of the Western Theater of the U.S. Civil War, but it is fairly marginalized in the film as simply another raid in the lives of the bushwhackers that Roedel and his pal, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), join after Chiles’ clan is killed by Jayhawkers, along with Holt, Mackeson, George Clyde (Simon Baker), Holt’s friend and the man who bought and freed him, and Black John (James Caviezel). The problem is that so much happens so quickly, with no real way to establish the personalities of the characters, that they blend into a gray mush, and that by the time each of them dies, the viewer not only does not care, but ends up asking, was that guy the one who…?, because they are almost indistinguishable.
The lone exception is Meyers’ Mackeson. The best evidence I can give of this is that I am writing this review a day after watching the film three times, twice with commentaries, and the only memorable characters are Meyers’ Mackeson, Maguire’s Roedel (because he’s the star), Wright’s Holt (because he’s the lone black character of consequence), and Jewel’s Sue Lee (because she’s the only female character of consequence), and Jewel’s and Holt’s characters also stand out for their actors' poor portrayals. In fact, the most authentic thing about Jewel’s performance is her crooked and unblanched teeth, like many of those in the 19th century.
After the Lawrence Massacre, Roedel and Holt retire from the war and go to live with Sue Lee, who has borne Chiles’ daughter, on the farm of a family sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Roedel is then, inexplicably, assigned as the one to marry Sue Lee, to make an 'honest woman' of her, and he then escapes the Union Army’s dragnet of ex-Bushwhackers. The film then ends with a great moment, and a cringe-worthy one.
The great moment comes from the last confrontation between Roedel and Mackeson, who shot Roedel in the leg after the Massacre, and during a Union charge, after Roedel had dissed him by not slaying a couple of men in the town. Roedel had vowed to kill Mackeson, but now, with Holt, Sue Lee, and the baby by his side, he intends to head out west, whereas Mackeson, who finds them, with one of his war buddies, is determined to head back to his hometown, to get a drink — an act that is a de facto suicide. Roedel pretends to be hospitable, offers him a drink, and warns him not to do it. He then gets the drop on Mackeson, as he sips water. But, instead of killing him, he lets him and his buddy ride to certain death. This is a great moment not only because of the actors, but because of the subversion of the expectation that Roedel will kill Mackeson.
Then comes the cringe-worthy one, and it is made so especially because it follows such a great moment and that it’s the last in a series of almost never-ending PC revisions to history that Lee and Schamus engage in (a fact which would be more tolerable if the revisions, at least, worked dramatically). Holt takes off over a hilltop, and heads west with a gun, as a black man emulating many a Western film’s end. The thing that makes it so PC is that this would have been next to impossible, given the time frame of the film; it is so telegraphed that to see it actually filmed makes one sigh over Lee’s utter lack of innovation; and, lastly, it lends the film such a whimper of an ending. The presence of a whimper would have been fine had the last shot also been realistic, but this conflation of dual ‘badnesses’ is just too much to end a mediocre film with.
Technically, the film does have moments of real power, such as when Roedel is forced to read the intercepted letters of Northern soldiers’ families. But there is far too little of this. While the set design and costuming are spot on, the film’s cinematography, by Frederick Elmes (longtime collaborator with director Jim Jarmusch), is mostly static, content to allow the scenery alone to carry the image, rather than framing it interestingly. The film’s score, by Mychael Danna, is likewise rather inert, neither detracting from nor adding to the images. Schamus’s script has been assailed for its supposed archaic sounding dialogue (which, if one reads the Civil War era letters extant, is no problem), but it’s mostly in sync with then contemporaneous idioms, and one wonders why those detractors don’t rip into the bloat of so many scenes, and the length of the film, rather than the dialogue.
While Jewel and Wright give performances that underwhelm (see the many scenes with Baker’s character, the man who saved his life, and defends him from others’ racism), and Meyers dominates every scene he is in, the rest of the main cast — Maguire, Baker, and Caviezel — are, at best, adequate. Maguire’s natural sunny disposition ill serves him as Roedel, whereas Baker’s character often devolves into a plot device supposed to give the audience an ‘in’ to Wright’s Holt, but Holt’s own stolid performance never allows Baker’s Clyde to shine. Caviezel’s Black John is little more than a glorified cameo. Meyers’ Mackeson, who looks uncannily like stoner actor Jason Mewes from Kevin Smith’s New Jersey films, is the only part of this film, as mentioned, that works repeatedly, and does so on all levels — from his fey, glam rock type mannerisms to his Southern accent (the actor is British) — for I have known people who truly had that psychopathic gleam in their eyes. Meyers captures it perfectly, but he also captures moments that go beyond the diegetic borders of the screenplay. There are two scenes in the film, both where he is offered food and drink in the presence of a woman, where his eyes reveal a warmth unseen in other moments — the first when the Bushwhackers get food from a local farmer’s wife, and the second in his last encounter with Roedel and Sue Lee. The fact that we see vulnerability and humanity in a character that is otherwise psychopathic raises the character above most off the rack ‘evil’ characters in film.
The DVD, soon to be released by The Criterion Collection, is in a single-disk package, with the film shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Extras include an insert booklet with essays by critic Godfrey Cheshire and historian Edward Leslie. Both are off the rack, while Cheshire’s veers into a bit of fawning. There is an interview with actor Jeffrey Wright. It runs about half an hour, and reveals little of depth, save that Wright feels that his work and character were somehow important, as is the film. There are two audio commentaries, one by Lee and Schamus, and the other with cinematographer Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg. The latter one, is, by far, the superior one; and an excellent one in its own right. It deals with the making of the film, the historicity of the film, and other aspects of the film and its place in the history of Civil War cinema. Overall, the most enjoyable of my three viewings of the film came with this commentary.
But, since the artistic level of the film is so lacking, it opens up the film for scrutiny on its historical accuracy, and here, and despite Lee’s protestations to the contrary, the film also fails, often abysmally. First and foremost is the treatment of the Daniel Holt character. While it is true that there were some black bushwhackers and blacks who fought for the Confederacy, the fact that Holt is treated fairly well by his three main comrades, allowed to serve side-by-side with white men, and later allowed to sleep inside the home of a white family, rather than the barn, as well as eat from their dishes, is simply implausible. If one, or possibly two, of these things occurred, perhaps there is some plausibility, but the whole string, plus several other minor PC touches? No way. If the white folks had been John Brown devotees, then this would be likely, but never in the home of Confederate loyalists, whose friends, family, and neighbors had died in support of keeping blacks in chains.
The only explanation for this is Lee’s almost terminal political correctness, evident throughout his film work, and which came to a nasty boil in Brokeback Mountain. In fact, in his commentary, Lee almost brags about his historical revisionism, by trying to recast the Civil War as the first wave of what is now modern globalization. Yet, despite the revisionism and PC, the film also bends over backward to sympathetically portray the Confederates — it makes racism almost non-existent amongst the majority of whites, as well as making that which does physically non-threatening, it treats its characters as if they were contemporary, especially in terms of sexuality, and it utterly decontextualizes Jayhawker attacks into mere terrorism while glorifying the true terrorism of the Lawrence Massacre.
These flaws are why the most important scene in the whole film comes an hour and 43 minutes in, because it does not give in to the rest of the film’s revisionism and PC, and also artistically flows naturally out of actions just seen, rather than the filmmaker’s desire to just shoehorn it in to make a point. The moment is when a drunken Confederate Raider is lying passed out on a barrel, and a Lawrence boy, who has just witnessed the Rebel carnage, takes the drunk man’s gun, and shoots him dead as he awakens. This moment is important because it is the only moment in the film, artistically, where the viewer sees the ‘good guys’ win, and where the viewer goes, "Yeah, got ’im." And it is important historically and psychologically because it shows how the chain of violence in war breeds only more violence in the next generation.
Unfortunately, that moment is rare in this rather mediocre film, which meanders inoffensively, somewhere between great and terrible. Watching it, I kept wondering what this raw material would have ended up being in the hands of a true master, like Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, or even Martin Scorsese in his prime (he never did a Western). But, I suppose that this was the best a studio director like Lee could do.
I do wonder, though, why this film was chosen to be given the Criterion treatment? It is not historically nor artistically important, and it does not even have the ‘cheese’ factor that some other Criterion titles (<cough, cough> Armageddon) do. Given the number of important and great foreign films that are neglected and unavailable in America, in good quality DVD packages (Kenji Mizoguchi’s Life Of Oharu, anyone?), and given the sparse resources Criterion and other DVD companies have been devoting to new releases, one has to wonder why such an average little film as this was elevated, when it can only come at the expense of far greater films whose future audiences are left hanging. Regardless, Ride With The Devil is not a classic, nor a great, film, but Meyers’ performance is one of the better performances in the Western and/or Civil War genre. It’s not much, but as the Bushwhackers learnt, sometimes you just have to take what little life offers.