Ride With The Devil

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Ride With The Devil (1999)

After turning his attention to the England of Jane Austen and the America of Richard Nixon, director Ang Lee, in what looks to be an ongoing series of period pieces, takes on the American Civil War in Ride With The Devil. Adapted by longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus from the relatively obscure Daniel Woodrell novel Woe To Live On, the film stars the always-reliable Tobey Maguire. Maguire plays the Southern-identified son of a German immigrant who, along with lifelong friend Skeet Ulrich, joins a band of bushwhackers, guerrilla forces working in Missouri for the Confederate cause. Over the course of the war, he's forced to question his loyalty, and thus his identity, as friends die, relationships change, and the war changes direction. A long, complex, novelistic film that's occasionally a little too slow for its own good, Ride does an effective job of getting past preconceptions of the Civil War, in large part due to its setting. Far away from the battles of the East, the Missouri/Kansas area saw the war at its most ambiguous, and Lee's film portrays this as much through characters as through incidents. In a beautifully restrained performance, Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) plays a freed slave who fights alongside his former owner because of ties that have nothing to do with the Confederacy. But the weight of Ride With The Devil falls on Maguire, whose character comes into his own as an individual through his relationships with Wright and a pretty widow played with surprising effectiveness by wispy pop chanteuse Jewel. Lee seems a bit less assured with the material here than in the past, but the sometimes cumbersome path he takes is always worth following, particularly once he arrives at a grand closing shot that contains all the promise of an America without politics.