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Ride With the Devil: Director’s Cut (Blu-ray Review)

3 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel.

Have you ever heard anyone make an historical statement — one out of your personal bailiwick of expertise — that makes perfect sense when you stop to think about it yet still startles just the same?

Southern-bred film critic Godfrey Cheshire does so in the first of his two instructive essays about what now looks to be director Ang Lee’s most underrated movie, an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s Civil War novel Woe to Live On. To quote: “As an act of terrorism committed against American citizens on U.S. soil, the 1863 Lawrence (Kansas) Massacre had no equal until the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, and the attacks of Sept.. 11, 2001, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives.” And some sources list the Lawrence death toll even higher.

Released at Thanksgiving 1999 to no business and reviews that spanned middling to marginally better, Lee’s adaptation led to the one time in his career where he didn’t control the editing process. Already leisurely and contemplative at an uncommonly long 138 minutes, this was not a movie its distributor wished to see run 160, which was Lee’s preferred cut and the one that’s presented here. I’m not sure what he has done, but screen history tells us that some movies flow better and thus ironically seem shorter when footage is re-instated (think Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America). Either I’ve simply changed my mind some about the movie — even warming up to the performance by singer Jewel, which I originally described as a “zircon” — or Lee’s tweaks have been subtly significant.

The Kansas-Missouri hotbed that embraced both pro-Union Jayhawkers and Southern-sympathizing Bushwhackers has been addressed on screen before — but not that often in major movies and usually as some kind of side-issue backdrop. Here, it’s most of the story — as a son of pro-North German immigrants (Tobey Maguire) joins the Bushwhackers after his best friend (Skeet Ulrich) sees his pro-Southern father murdered by Yankees in guerilla fashion that typified both sides of this quasi-military conflict. If your head is swimming, those were the times.

Another unexpected allegiance is that of a one-time slave (Jeffery Wright) who has remained loyal to his former master (Simon Baker) by joining this same makeshift band of combatants while trying to figure out some future destiny of choice. There are sporadic clashes sprinkled amid long campfire scenes where the men get to know each other — a rhythm profoundly interrupted by the appearance of a young widow (Jewel) who has had, and will continue to have, one of those complicated love lives that war often mandates.

We can see that the Maguire character is smart, but he’s also green, especially in amorous matters (his transparently fake bravado with the sexually savvier widow has some chuckles). By the time the movie ends, he will be only 19 or so but carrying not only physical war wounds but also the calluses of all kinds it takes to “begin” life in an expanding country. Much of this hardening process comes from his partaking — half-heartedly — in the Lawrence attack masterminded by unstable William Quantrill (John Ales), which leaves the town in even much worse shape (and with many more fatalities) than the aftermath of that bloody opening in The Wild Bunch. Because so much of what surrounds this scene is leisurely, Lee’s staging of it hits with full force.

The movie could probably use more star power — even 1960’s The Jayhawkers!, with Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, has a little more of that. But truth is, you get used to the performances here, which come to seem more authentic as the story progresses. In addition to the Cheshire essays, there’s one by Quantrill biographer Edward E. Leslie — also an interview with Wright, a new high-def transfer supervised by cinematographer Fredrick Elmes and two separate commentaries (one featuring Lee).

Chronologically for the filmmaker, Devil comes between The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even at the time, Lee was amassing one of the most eclectic filmographies around.

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