Criterion Collection DVD Review: Ride With the Devil (1999)

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One of the most valuable attributes a director can possess is versatility, not only on set to be able to handle a wide variety of problems, personalities, and production hiccups in the long journey from “action” to “edit” but also in the material to which they're drawn in the first place.

Ang Lee is precisely this rare breed of filmmaker that's never found one specific niche and stuck with it, instead directing such wide-ranging material as Hulk, The Ice Storm Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Taking Woodstock, Lust, Caution, Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility.

With roughly a dozen movies in nearly two decades, he's proven to be methodical, passionate, and as unpredictable as he is highly selective in his material, moving from his breakout hit The Wedding Banquet into blockbuster territory with his acclaimed Oscar nominated favorites until Mountain finally garnered him an Academy Award of his own.

And while most viewers, ardent fans, and critics alike wouldn't have been surprised to see any number of his works from Sense and Sensibility to Crouching Tiger and Brokeback get selected for a Criterion Collection release, similar to our surprise in discovering exactly which film he's going to tackle next, perhaps nobody expected the prestigious collection to delve into his filmography and choose his little seen 1999 box office bomb Ride With the Devil for the latest slate of Criterion titles.

And although I'd seen the film upon its release on disc and found it slightly better than I'd been expecting considering some of the scathing reviews, I honestly couldn't remember a single thing about it aside from the fact that the then-popular singer Jewel made her acting debut in the Civil War epic, perhaps paving the way for Jack White's turn in another epic Cold Mountain.

While I'd chalked up my poor recollection of the film to the amount of time that had passed since I'd originally seen it – right around ten years – when I watched it once again in preparation for the review, I was stunned to discover how much of a cinematic contradiction the peculiar film is as it's certainly a gorgeously made entertaining work but I'll be damned if you don't begin forgetting it as soon as it's over.

Epics are always tricky business and although Lee is highly skilled at period pieces, finding himself on the “wrong” side of the war – namely filming from the southern perspective and bringing nothing new to it -- as Union anti-slavery men are slaughtered by Bushwhackers including a now free black slave (Jeffrey Wright) was definitely the wrong way to go when we don't have the benefit of a more compelling storyline aside from watching one violent skirmish follow another and another.

Following up his work in another beautifully lensed period piece, The Cider House Rules, Tobey Maguire (already in danger of being typecast) starred as the German born Jake “Dutchie” Roedel who chooses to stand by his Missouri neighbor Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) on the side of the Confederacy regardless of his father's wishes that he join the rest of the pro-Union German immigrants.

As much as an outsider as Wright's freed slave Daniel Holt who joined up with the Bushwhackers with his former master and best friend Clyde (Simon Baker), when the two find themselves at odds with the increasingly violent and prejudicial larger group who don't take kindly to Germans or African-Americans, they begin to form a bond that will take them through the war.

Written by Lee's frequent creative collaborator James Schamus from the historical novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell -- the film benefits considerably from a tremendous cast featuring a who's who of well-known talent from Jonathon Rhys Meyers to Mark Ruffalo to Tom Wilkinson in bit parts but unfortunately remains a bit confusing and uninviting throughout.

Initially, to this end, we struggle to ascertain just who everybody is and why they're fighting. Finally we realize that instead of a riveting plot worthy of the cast, crew and audience, we mostly get into an odd rhythm of one small showdown after another as men get maimed or killed one after another until finally some semblance of our main characters and their plight breaks through about midway through the 148 minute running time.

It's an uneven effort to say the least yet one that is utterly fascinating to sit through at least once thanks to Lee's decision to show us a side of the war with which most of us are unfamiliar and take great chances with his characterization decisions especially considering Wright's role that hearkens to his love of outsiders. Luckily, Criterion's release of Ride With the Devil boasts further insight into the film with a candid interview with Wright, two commentary tracks and a comprehensive analytical and historical booklet about the film and events.

Gorgeously restored so that the greenery of the Southern tree filled woods feels so alive it nearly bursts off the screen even when the DVD is not inserted into an upconvert player, while in the end, I'd recommend renting the film before purchasing to judge for yourself a movie that's nonetheless worthy of your time and on par with Cold Mountain as viewers will find a lot to get swept up in during this particular Ride by the always-evolving Lee.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.