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TORONTO REVIEW: Lee's Smooth, Heroic "Ride With The Devil"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire September 11, 1999 at 2:0AM

TORONTO REVIEW: Lee's Smooth, Heroic "Ride With The Devil"
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TORONTO REVIEW: Lee's Smooth, Heroic "Ride With The Devil"

by Ray Pride




Ang Lee has become our contemporary equivalent of Michael Curtiz, the
most versatile stylist of the old Warner Bros. era. While themes recur
in the work of Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus (particularly
examinations of difficult choices forced by personal and familial
clashes with tradition), the director's sixth feature is another
demonstration of his focused intelligence and singular craft as he once
more revels in diversity. (Notably, his director's credit appears here
under a hand-cranked whetstone as it sharpens a knife.)


After the artistic success of both "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice
Storm
," no one would think to ask why the Taiwanese born director of six
features would take on the American Civil War. Yet the film began life
at Fox, then shifted to Universal under producer Good Machine until
Universal recently shifted its rights to USA Films.


But on screen, past the politics of finance, the period once again seems
fresh and effortless through Lee's eyes. The opening shot starts as a
swoosh of motion against trees, and that rush of motion against nature
is a recurring device. In a review many years ago Jean-Luc Godard said
that directors needed to be like D. W. Griffith and rediscover how to
capture the wind in the trees. Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes
repeatedly surpass Godard's spur, with a whirlwind of story contained in
a restlessly composed style.


This pack of "true Missouri men" forced into retreat from their frontier
lives are pale, peaked, long-haired irregulars who must shed blood to
earn dignity. They include Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Jack Bull (Skeet
Ulrich
), and as a slave whose freedom was bought by his now-best friend,
Jeffrey Wright. (Jewel, and romance, come later.) Maguire is a taciturn,
sly smiling observer, his face filled with upstanding rectitude yet
galoot goofiness throughout, a Dutch-born boy of 18 whose sympathies
shift perceptibly away from the traditions of the Old South over the
course of the film's 134 minutes. Come hell or packs of Kansas
Jayhawkers, Jake discovers that life's one lasting impulse, in the
film's original title, is "To Live On."


The bursts of violence result in devastation as wicked and awful as any
post-apocalypse movie of the last two decades. They fight battles mostly
forgotten outside the south, myths filled with iconic names like
Quantrill. Yet Lee's approach is immediate and tactile, such as in the
keen depiction of the eeriness of faceless horsemen thundering in the
black night: sound, a blur of motion, gusts of gunfire. The "Federals"
swoop down on the Missouri
"bushwhackers" who sympathize with the South but , belong to no army.
Lee and Schamus studiously imply that hand-to-hand, man-to-man,
neighbor-to-neighbor warfare that the U.S. has not seen for almost 140
years remains painfully relevant today. Think Kosovo, Belgrade, East
Timor. Boys see their fathers killed. Blood oaths are sworn over spilled
blood. But wisdom, if hard-won, remains simple: "It ain't right and it
ain't wrong: it just is."


Mychael Danna's mix of Prokofiev-ish thunder and the fiddler's muse
suits the often startling imagery. There is an abiding respect for the
purifying force of fire and for the force of battles shown in grabbed
glimpses. There is one image worthy of Tarkovsky, when ranks of riders
prepare to ride over a ridge into Lawrence, Kansas, to annihilate the
town, and the crack of a single gunshot causes a mass quiver, a hillside
of man and horseflesh startled as if a single organism. The dialogue is
filled with wry colloquialism, and often very funny, and most of the
moral pronouncements, drawn on the period, are robustly epigrammatic:
"You taught him mercy but he forgot it" is typical of the terse,
accepting Southern style of speech we hear nowadays from only the very
old. Coming from the fresh faces in the cast of "Ride With The Devil,"
the spiritual weariness and contentedness seems more elevated than
incomprehensibly anachronistic.


"Ride With The Devil" is the second Good Machine production to be cast
off by Universal (after "Happiness.") Whatever the challenges in selling
a Civil War story that mingles the epic and the heroic, romance and
bloody gunfights, the USA Films marketers, many formerly at the
now-defunct Gramercy Pictures, may be the ones who can best sell the
film. The sort of sophisticated, varied campaigns that made "Elizabeth"
a success for Gramercy may work again here.


[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film
critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for many other
publications, including Playboy Online. He is also a screenwriter and
filmmaker.]