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Ang Lee does not try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that is this country’s horrible Civil War. Ride With the Devil, adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, is a fictional telling of the 1863 raid on the Union stronghold of Lawrence, Kan., by the Bushwhackers, guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill’s band of scruffy Missourians. Bloody and messy, the Missourians’ journey is a miserable series of stalls and aborted battles that hikes the testosterone levels of the fight-itching Southern boys as they trudge toward the war zone.
But Lee’s storytelling fastidiousness, so silkily tailored to Jane Austen and so domineeringly phony in 1997’s The Ice Storm, manages to wrap up the episode in various “realistic” bows. He plants and pays off all characters’ fates with a meticulousness that has nothing to do with the vagaries of destiny amid war and finally signals redemption not just for the folks onscreen but for the country.
The film begins in socially divided Missouri, where Jake (Tobey Maguire), son of a strict German immigrant, hovers on the outer edges of the high-class set, despite being best pals with elegant Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich). Shades of Gone With the Wind color the domestic scenes—the aristocratic Chiles family hosts a garden wedding where rumors of war are spreading. (Later, a Mr. Evans, who lets the boys crash in his shed, warns the Bushwhackers about war against a sophisticated enemy, citing not Rhett Butler’s fears of Northern industrial advancements but the democratic education the Kansans offer to all the state’s citizens.) Gung-ho for a fight, the Missourians set off—Jake and suave Jack, golden-curled ladies’ man George (Simon Baker-Denny) and his friend Daniel (Jeffrey Wright), and bloodthirsty young hotshot Pitt (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
Without uniforms, leaders, or even a specific direction, the Bushwhackers exemplify the confusion and ambiguity that bedeviled the Southern such-as-they-were “troops” in the early days of the war. Atrocities compound one another at a dizzying rate—the multilayered brutality of this war seems as inevitable as Greek tragedy. But when the opposing forces finally gather in Lawrence for the only battle in the film, it’s on an ambiguously level playing field: the open ground of combat, which tests individual grit. Jake, in particular, needs to prove himself a son of the South and not the Union sympathizer that all Germans are presumed to be; even his literacy is viewed with suspicion. The Southerners know what to make of Daniel, a black man fighting for their cause, although he helpfully explains to Jake the biblical source of his name.
All Lee’s ducks are in a row before the fighting begins: Jake and Pitt have a date with destiny, Daniel must be tested and survive his stint in the lion’s den, Jack will see what he can buy with his money on the battlefield, and so will George with his good looks. Metaphorical personalities of fiction tend to be part of a bigger metaphorical scheme—the horse dragging a Union flag tied to its tail in the dust is a nice touch—and Ride With the Devil is largely a figurative retelling of America as a series of frontiers. As the Bushwhackers push into new territory, they find a new and different country, alien and unconsolidated, at each frontier. The life they hope to reclaim, especially that of Jake and Daniel, isn’t one of glories or prosperity. But Americans are dreamers, and dreamers prevail—”We’ll stick together,” says Jake. “We’ll see all of it back.” Of course they don’t—this country is too big and fraught to reclaim a thing; its purpose is to change and change.
Ride With the Devil has also taken a sheaf from one of the most subtly influential war movies of all time—Michael Mann’s 1992 masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans. Lee’s film has the same antique cadences of language and convincing interaction, but it’s highly colored for numb modern audiences. The love story, featuring the poetess Jewel, is a saccharine blowout that climaxes with Southern-woman-as-Madonna domestic bliss (Jewel, by the way, has a great future, maybe as a waitress or a pop star, not as an actress), and there’s gruesome field surgery that is probably really disgusting if you keep your eyes open.
Finally, the straining extravagance and narrative compactness collapse in on the film’s graceful moments of truth—the ragtag band stilled into silence as Jake reads letters home from a confiscated mailbag; the Bushwhackers frantically screaming, “Where is your army?” at the bewildered citizens of Lawrence—and render the film a half-convincing, half-dismissible showcase for a slew of pretty-boy actors. CP