Based on the novel Woe to Live On, Ride with the Devil tells the story of a couple of young Southern men who join a Missouri-based guerilla group during the Civil War as they seek refuge by protecting a family with a slave helping them. Directed by Ang Lee with a script by longtime collaborator James Schamus, Ride with the Devil is an epic drama that chronicles the journey of young men who face terror in a troubled war while finding a life outside of conflict and vengeance. Starring Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jewel, Jonathan Brandis, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Mark Ruffalo, James Caviezel, Zach Grenier, and Tom Wilkinson. Ride with the Devil is an extraordinary yet sweeping Civil War drama from Ang Lee.
The German-born Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) are young Southern men from Missouri that have just joined a group of local irregular soldiers known as the Bushwhackers. Chiles gains vengeance for his father’s death during an ambush with their leader Black John Ambrose (James Caviezel) and a wild young man named Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Roedel and Chiles meet up with other bushwhackers including George Clyde (Simon Baker) who is accompanied by his slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright) where the four decide to hide out nearby the home of Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier) who offers them tools to create a cave to hide in.
While Clyde goes out and hide at another nearby home leaving Holt to help Roedel and Chiles, they meet Evans’ widowed daughter-in-law Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel) whom Chiles falls for. During the period of hiding, Roedel befriends Holt as Holt reveals his loyalty for Clyde while hoping to reach his mother who had been sold somewhere to Texas. During an attack on Evans’ home, Roedel, Holt, Clyde, and Chiles lead an attack on the Union soldiers who attacked Evans only to have things go wrong. With the Evans’ family seeking refuge at another house along with Sue, the remaining Bushwhackers had to regroup with their gang. With William Quantrill (John Ales) leading a group of Bushwhackers to attack and raid Lawrence, Kansas, Holt and Roedel take part of it with Clyde as a supervisor.
During the raid, Roedel has a confrontation with Mackeson as Union soldiers make their way to attack the Bushwhackers where everything falls apart. Holt and Roedel get wounded during the battle as they’re accompanied by Cave Wyatt (Jonathan Brandis) to take them to the Brown family where Sue had been living for several months. Living with Mr. and Mrs. Brown (Tom Wilkinson and Margo Martindale), Roedel and Holt recover from their wounds as they ponder what to do next. Even as Sue had just had a baby as the two men ponder life after a war that they know is already at a loss.
The film is about a young man and his friend joining a guerilla group to fight off Union soldiers and protect their family. Yet during the journey, Jake Roedel would face things as a Bushwhacker that would change his views on war and on himself. Jake, like the African-American Holt, faces a similar prejudice towards some Southerners but as a German whose father supports the Union. Jake is a very flawed character as he meets a captured Union soldier (Mark Ruffalo) whom he knew as he made him sent a message that would later haunt him. Roedel’s development is crucial as he starts out as a young innocent man loyal to his home only to become a weary man filled with grief pondering what to do next.
James Schamus’ script is superb in its character study as well as setting a mood for the story as it all takes place during the Civil War. The script does a have a few flaws as far as when some of the events happen while it’s also a bit uneven in tone. The latter of which is due to the fact that it’s a war film with a bit of romance and drama that at times, doesn’t really mesh. Still, it does have a narrative that is engaging and keeps the story going as it’s all driven by Jake Roedel’s fascination with his surroundings along with the friendships he have with Jack Bull, Holt, and later Sue. Despite the few flaws the script has, Schamus does create a script that is compelling and filled with fully-fleshed characters that people can enjoy.
Ang Lee’s direction is truly magnificent in its presentation and willingness to be engaged by the story and the characters in the film. While Lee does manage to take his time with the story by opening the film with a wedding that Roedel and Chiles attend to reveal their lives. He also lets the story move forward by having this terrifying scene of Roedel and Chiles forcing to flee following an attack and then move the story a year later for a great ambush scene involving the two characters. Then slows it down for scenes where Roedel and Chiles meet up with their fellow Bushwhackers that includes a wonderful poignant yet simple scene of Roedel reading a letter that brings ease to the soldiers.
Lee’s direction for many of the film’s intimate settings such as the cave and the interior houses are very intimate in his use of close-ups for the characters. For the battle scenes, Lee definitely takes a wide scope to allow the film to be big as if he is making an epic. Lee knows how to frame these wide shots such as the horses coming down a hill or to capture the chaos of the battle. The overall work in the direction is truly amazing in its framing but also maintain an intimacy for the film’s dramatic moments as Lee creates a dazzling yet engaging war-drama.
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes does a phenomenal job with the film‘s gorgeous photography from the very green look of the Missouri-Kansas forests in the spring and fall to the white cold of the wintertime. Elmes’ work in the exteriors are just as beautiful in its intimacy and the mood it creates for the characters in their situations. Longtime Lee collaborator in editor Tim Squyres does an excellent job with the film’s editing in creating a tight yet leisured pace for the film. Particularly when he utilizes jump-cuts for some of the film’s action along with transitional dissolves and fade-outs to help move the film forward for its 138-minute running time in its theatrical cut.
Production designer Mark Friedberg, along with art director Steve Arnold and set decorators Stephanie Carroll and Bryan E. Jordan, does an incredible job with the set design for the film such as the houses the characters live in to the cave home they create in the first half of the film. Since it’s shot largely on location in a town in Missouri, Friedberg and his team were able to recreate the look of the town in its Civil War setting to maintain its authenticity. Costume designer Marit Allen does a wonderful job with the costumes from the ragged soldiers clothing the men wear in combat to the suits they wore along with the big dresses that the women wear.
Sound editor Phil Stockton does a superb job with the sound to capture the calmness of the forest to the raucous chaos of the battle scenes to showcase the world the characters are in. The film’s score by Mychael Danna is brilliant for its array of traditional, folk-driven pieces that is played to set the mood of the times. Danna also provides some lush, orchestral flourishes for the dramatic and sweeping epic scenes to enhance the ambition of the film. Along with some traditional pieces of that era, the soundtrack includes a song by Jewel that is played in the final credits of the film.
The casting by Avy Kaufman is truly sensational as Kaufman creates what is undoubtedly an amazing ensemble. Numerous small but notable performances include David Darlow and Kathleen Warfel as Jack Bull’s parents, John Judd as Jake’s father, Celia Weston as a woman who brings in the Bushwhackers, John Ales as the famous Confederate guerilla leader William Quantrill, T. Max Graham as a reverend, and Mark Ruffalo as a captured Union soldier sent to bring a message to the Union. Other notable small roles as fellow Bushwhackers include Matthew Faber as Mackeson’s friend Turner, Thomas Guiry as the young Riley Crawford, James Caviezel as the local leader Black John, Stephen Mailer as the cautious Babe Hudspeth, and the late Jonathan Brandis in an outstanding performance as helpful Cave Wyatt.
Zach Grenier is very good as Mr. Evans, a local Confederate supporter who helps out the Bushwhackers while Simon Baker is also good as the experienced George Clyde who has a very warm friendship to his slave Holt. Margo Martindale is excellent as Mrs. Brown while Tom Wilkinson is amazing as the no-nonsense but sympathetic Mr. Brown. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is great in a terrifying role as the wild Pitt Mackeson, a soldier with outlaw tendencies who despises Roedel over his German ancestry. Jewel is wonderful as Sue Lee Shelley, a widow who falls for Jack Bull while helping the rest of the men by feeding them as she has some funny lines in a subtle yet charming performance.
Skeet Ulrich is brilliant as Jack Bull Chiles, a wild soldier with a conscience as he often leads his small band to battle while trying to fight for what is left of the Southern lifestyle he grew up with. Jeffrey Wright is great in what is definitely the best performance of the film as Daniel Holt. Wright brings an eerie quietness to his character who has a fierce loyalty to George Clyde while taking Roedel as a friend in their shared struggle with prejudice. Tobey Maguire is amazing as Jake Roedel, a young guerilla soldier who deals with prejudice and the consequences of war while fighting what’s left of a war he realize he is going to lose. It’s a remarkable role for the actor who definitely shows a real weariness with a sense of humor to a character that goes into a journey that would change his view on the world.
Ride with the Devil is a grand yet glorious film from Ang Lee featuring exhilarating performances from Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright. While it’s not a perfect film due to a few flaws in the script, the film definitely overcomes those flaws with a sweeping vision and engaging characters. Fans of American Civil War films will see this film as something a bit different in terms of storytelling but at least has the big visuals needed for a film like this. In the end, Ride with the Devil is a thrilling yet captivating Civil War drama from Ang Lee and company.
Ang Lee Films: Pushing Hands - The Wedding Banquet - Eat Drink Man Woman - Sense & Sensibility (1995 film) - The Ice Storm - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Hire: Chosen - Hulk - Brokeback Mountain - Lust, Caution - Taking Woodstock - Life of Pi - The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee
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