A complex and divisive time in American history is painted in admirably expressive shades of gray in "Ride With the Devil." Impressing once again with the diversity of his choices of subject matter and milieu, director Ang Lee has made a brutal but sensitively observed film about the fringes of the Civil War, about the families and neighbors who were divided among themselves along the Missouri-Kansas border.

A complex and divisive time in American history is painted in admirably expressive shades of gray in “Ride With the Devil.” Impressing once again with the diversity of his choices of subject matter and milieu, director Ang Lee has made a brutal but sensitively observed film about the fringes of the Civil War, about the families and neighbors who were divided among themselves along the Missouri-Kansas border. But what is perhaps the film’s signal virtue, its refined ambiguity and refusal to see anything in simple black and white, will make this already difficult-to-market period piece even more of a challenge to sell to the public. Moderate B.O. awaits this USA Films release, which will hit theaters at Thanksgiving following a tour of the fest circuit.

Moving on from the 19th century England of “Sense and Sensibility” and the modern American suburbia of “The Ice Storm,” Lee here focuses on a sideshow to U.S. history that most Americans would have trouble describing with much accuracy. In the anarchic world of Southern-sympathizing Bushwhackers and pro-Union Jayhawkers, it is never easy to know who might be ally or enemy, and the conflict is more often personal and haphazard rather than militarily organized.

In most conventional treatments of this period, the present protagonists would be the bad guys, redneck Confederates determined to preserve slavery and anxious to spill Yankee blood. Indeed, the opening scene depicts the last glimmering moments of the old style of Southern life, with well-mannered citizens on a prosperous Missouri farm uttering elegantly turned oaths about “that black Republican” Lincoln in the White House and the “Yankee aggression” about to spoil everything.

Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) is a product of this world and naturally holds its beliefs, especially after his father is murdered by Yanks. His close friend Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), however, is the son of a poor German immigrant who, like most of his class, fervently backs the North, so Jake’s decision to join the ad hoc Bushwhackers after the outbreak of hostilities puts him into fateful conflict with his father.

First of several scenes to erupt with shockingly abrupt violence has the two young men, who are now roving the countryside as guerrilla fighters with a handful of others, donning Union uniforms in order to fool and kill some opponents. Among their colleagues are confident leader Black John (James Caviezel), mistrustful psychotic Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), young gentleman George Clyde (Simon Baker) and the latter’s taciturn former slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who fights for the South despite his race seemingly out of deep personal loyalty to Clyde, although he is viewed with deep suspicion by most of the others.

The early going, set in 1862, is peppered with suddenly materializing skirmishes, gun battles and chases that alternate with the more ruminative down time at camps and in the wilderness; in the first hour, there is an outstanding rhythm to the editing and contrasting of scenes. Cutting through the conventions of armed conflict are beautiful small details, such as the combatants chivalrously holding their fire in one exchange to permit all the women to exit a house under siege.

James Schamus’ intelligent script, which is based on Daniel Woodrell’s 1987 novel “Woe to Live On,” also pays gratifying attention to linguistic niceties. The language of most of the characters, who are neither Southern nor Northern, possesses a dry, precise, unconsciously poetic quality that represents a pleasure unto itself, and the attention given to written letters, the way in which men deal with a self-possessed woman, and the lyrical visuals often bring to mind the work of Francois Truffaut.

The woman in question is Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), a young widow who had been married only three weeks when her husband was killed. When the men hole up for awhile in a woodshed near her home, Sue Lee brings them provisions and Jack initiates a romance with her. But Jack is soon mortally injured, and the small group, which is now reduced to Jake, Holt and Sue Lee, moves on to take up residence in the home of a welcoming family, where Sue Lee can wait out her pregnancy and she and the clearly virginal Jake can commence an odd and very slowly developing courtship.

But the war is still raging, and Jake, Holt and some of the others join the demented Quantrill (John Ales), who is planning a vengeful attack on the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kan. Filmed with a savage slender, the raid, in which more than 180 people were slaughtered, marks a moral turning point for Jake, whose commitment to personal matters begins to outflank his political motivations at a time when the tide is also decisively turning against the South. Not only that, but the loony Mackeson has begun taking potshots at him and Holt. Final stretch presents Jake, who’s all of 19, with several tests which will determine whether or not he’s equipped to lead a family into what will shortly be a very different post-war world.

Pic stresses the youth of the characters, how these adolescents have been plucked by history to fight the young country’s most decisive and character-defining battle, how they are equipped to kill but not much else. The film takes the time to give voice to numerous interesting perspectives, such as those of the black slave who precariously sticks with Confederates until he can find a favorable moment to follow his own destiny, the embittered rebel farmer who ironically views Yankee “free-thinking” as prescribed thought control, the war widow who perseveres with equanimity as she loses two men in quick succession, has a baby and faces the future with a virtual boy.

On the downside, story softens and slows considerably as the men retreat increasingly from the action, and the secondary roles, while nicely handled by the actors, are mere sketches knowable only by their primary characteristics.

Maguire, Ulrich and Wright capably handle the principal parts, and while pop star Jewel isn’t asked to display much range, she suggests a calm, determined confidence that lends great credence to Sue Lee’s campaign to win her personal war. Frederick Elmes’ widescreen images have a sweeping, sometimes desolate beauty, and Mark Friedberg’s production design and Marit Allen’s costumes help create a good impression of a newly settled but quickly changing environment.

Ride With the Devil

Production

A USA Films release of a Universal presentation of a Good Machine production. Produced by Ted Hope, Robert Colesberry, James Schamus. Executive producer, David Linde. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, James Schamus, based on the novel "Woe to Live On" by Daniel Woodrell.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Frederick Elmes; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, Alex Steyermark; editor, Tim Squyres; production designer, Mark Friedberg; art director, Steve Arnold; set designers, Jonathan Scott, Steve Lauberth; set decorator, Stephanie Carroll; costume designer, Marit Allen; sound (Dolby SR), Drew Kunin; supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; associate producer, Anne Carey; assistant director, Bob Huberman; second unit director, David Ellis; second unit camera, Michael Benson; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at PolyGram screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 27, 1999. (In Deauville Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival -- Gala; London Film Festival -- opening night.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Jack Bull Chiles - Skeet Ulrich Jake Roedel - Tobey Maguire Sue Lee Shelley - Jewel Daniel Holt - Jeffrey Wright George Clyde - Simon Baker Pitt Mackeson - Jonathan Rhys Meyers Black John - James Caviezel Riley Crawford - Thomas Guiry Orton Brown - Tom Wilkinson Cave Wyatt - Jonathan Brandis Turner Rawls - Matthew Faber Babe Hudspeth - Stephen Mailer Quantrill - John Ales Mr. Evans - Zach Grenier Wilma Brown - Margo Martindale Alf Bowden - Mark Ruffalo Mrs. Clark - Celia Weston

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