As they suggest on the commentary, Ride with the Devil was a film without a home. When Oscar season came it was ignored, and for a film like this to get any traction it would need boosters. The studio had also gone through some changes, so it was someone else’s film, and it doing well could make the new management look bad. So the tale of Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedell (Tobey Maguire), two Missourian bushwhackers fighting in the civil war, was dumped and got lost in a great year of cinema. Through the Criterion Collection, it threatens and deserves to be reincarnated. My review of Criterion’s Blu-ray of Ride with the Devil follows after the jump.
Jack Bull (Ulrich) and Jake (Maguire) are childhood friends who feel thrust to defend their countrymen. It’s awkward for Jake as his German/Dutch heritage makes people think he’s amenable to the North, but he believes in his neighborhood, and wants to avenge Jack Bull’s father death, and then later his own father’s death. He gets together with bushwhackers Black John (Jim Caviezel), Pitt Mackerson (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), and George Clyde (Simon Baker) to make up a motley crew, but when winter strikes the boys head to the farm of the Evans family, where Jack strikes up a romance with Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel). It’s there also that Jake becomes friends with slave Daniel Holt (Jeffery Wright), who is George’s servant but also a fighter for the south. The war continues and the bushwhackers have their moments but are outmatched, while Jake’s friendship with Daniel (both as outsiders) causes rifts that leave both feeling alienated from the group as they try and figure out how to survive the war more than win it.
By now, the coded language and meaningful silences of Ang Lee’s cinema is downright familiar. This is a character study of the leads, but the film’s got a sneak attack approach to how it shifts characters into the foreground. It’s also an ensemble work, and people like Jonathan Brandis, Mark Ruffalo, Zach Greiner, Cecilia Weston, and Tom Wilkinson show up and kill in bits and pieces. But Jeffery Wright gives a deeply nuanced performance that eventually takes hold as the heart and soul of the film. It was also the film that announced the man was more than Basquiat. The film benefits from having the structure of an event, so it follows the rise and fall of these men’s fortunes in the war, but also how Jake and Daniel grow to be friends as the war closes and – more so for Jake – they grow into adulthood. The makers joke about this having Brokeback Mountain elements to that friendship, but the film is a fascinating portrait of bushwhackers as told from their perspective, and the film tries to be somewhat historically accurate when it comes to the real events. For that it captures something that’s never been a part of American cinema to this degree before.
At the time the film had few champions, and as of now the film still is an under seen gem. Part of the problem is that the film came out in 1999. And that was a great year for cinema, with such titans as Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Election, The Phantom Menace, American Beauty, The Insider, Boys Don’t Cry, Office Space, Galaxy Quest, The Matrix, Magnolia, Toy Story 2, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Virgin Suicides, The Blair Witch Project, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Eyes Wide Shut and a number of others either being excellent or dominating the conversation. It was an easy year to get lost in, but watching the film again, and a couple of times since release, this is one of Ang Lee’s best films, and deserves a place next to The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain as a stunning achievement.
Criterion’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. The new cut runs 149 minutes, which eleven minutes longer than the theatrical cut. It seems most of what was added is featured in the scene where the bushwhackers take over a town. There are two audio commentaries, the first by Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus, the second with cinematographer Fredrick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg. The only other extra on the film is a conversation with Jeffery Wright (15 min.) who speaks favorably about the film and the experience of making it. Watching it again, I felt the film had become a must-have.