Jeffrey Wright, Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, James Caviezel, Jewel, Thomas Guiry, Tom Wilkinson
Daniel Woodrell (novel), James Schamus
With this new director’s cut, Ang Lee reconstructs his original vision for Ride with the Devil, a harrowing, unorthodox Civil War epic. Set during the Kansas-Missouri border war, the film follows Jake (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich), who join the Confederate-sympathizing Bushwhackers after Jack Bull’s father is killed by abolitionist Jayhawkers, and find an unusual ally in Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who’s fighting for the South despite being a former slave. A rumination on identity and loyalty, both political and personal, Ride with the Devil is a provocative challenge to preconceptions about America’s bloodiest conflict.
$64.159 thousand on 8 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Runtime: 148 min.
Release Date: 4/27/2010
• Audio Commentary with Director Ang Lee and Producer/Screenwriter James Schamus
• Audio Commentary with Director of Photography Frederick Elmes, Sound Designer Drew Kunin and Production Designer Mark Friedberg
• Interview with Actor Jeffrey Wright
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Ride With The Devil: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1999)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2010)
Oscar operates in mysterious ways. In 2000, director Ang Lee released Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese-language martial arts fantasy flick. Despite the fact that no film of its genre or language ever did so, Tiger went on to garner multiple Academy Award nominations, including nods for Best Picture and for Lee as Best Director.
A year earlier, Lee helmed Ride with the Devil, a Civil War epic – and exactly the kind of movie that the Academy normally adores. Except when they don’t. Despite its serious Oscar-bait potential, Devil failed to garner any awards attention at all.
Devil seems to be a “forgotten film” in Lee’s career. It did nothing at the box office and lacked the criticial plaudits earned by Lee’s prior flick, 1997’s Ice Storm. During the Civil War, Missouri citizens form a loose band of troops who fight against the Union armies. The film focuses on four of these “Bushwhackers”: Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny) and a slave who has gained freedom, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). We follow their battles as well as their down time, such as a long stint in hiding during which Chiles romances young war widow Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel).
The film is definitely not a "war picture”, as it chooses instead to focus on the characters and their relationships. Anyone who expects a more action-oriented picture will be disappointed, as that side of things doesn’t come to the forefront.
The film frequently gets close to the line between bearable and slightly boring. If it wasn't for the enjoyable performances from the then-young cast, the film would get too long sooner than it does. At nearly two and a half hours, the movie could probably stand to lose about 20 to 30 minutes. Many scenes simply involve the characters sitting around chatting, and not much of anything really happens or develops. Dialogue-driven sequences that add depth are a good thing, but many of the ones we find here seem to exist mainly to pass time.
Unfortunately, Devil fails to develop its characters particularly well. Perhaps I should praise its understated nature, as the film prefers to hint at background and motivation. This isn’t a significant problem most of the time, but it does undercut the tale’s most intriguing participant: Holt, the former slave who now fights on the side of the Rebels.
The sight of a black Bushwhacker is certainly provocative, and Devil would probably work better if it focused on him. By comparison, Roedel – who acts as the most prominent role in the ensemble – is something of a bland cipher. Chiles and Clyde get more limited screen time and never become particularly interesting; Chiles always remains a dull Southern gentleman sort, while Clyde just doesn’t get enough to do to become more captivating. Baker plays the part with a gleam in his eye, but Clyde never turns into anything more than a vaguely charming rogue.
Holt’s backstory is more compelling than anything we see on screen, and we don’t even learn a lot about that. We get the vibe that he fights for the Rebels out of loyalty to Clyde, but that’s about as far as the role’s development goes. Which is too bad, as a movie with a greater focus on Holt could’ve been quite compelling.
As it stands, Devil feels more than slightly rambling, a fact that shouldn’t come as a surprise for folks who’ve seen prior Lee efforts. He’s never been one to make tight, concise narratives, as he usually prefers characters and themes to plot. That would be fine if the characters and themes worked better than they do.
At least I think the general story offers intriguing elements. Rather than focus on more famous aspects of the Civil War, Devil looks at a part of history unknown to most. That makes it a worthwhile vehicle, even if it doesn’t ever quite gel into something dynamic or insightful.
This leaves Ride with the Devil as a sporadically interesting but often frustrating flick. It takes a leisurely place but doesn’t bother to properly develop its characters or themes. It features an action-oriented setting but doesn’t dig into the war with much gusto. It manages to keep us acceptably interested much of the time, but it never manages to coalesce into a consistently engaging effort.
Note that the Criterion release of Devil features a Director’s Cut of the film. This version adds about
10 minutes to the 1999 theatrical edition. I never saw the original cut, so I can’t compare the two, but I wanted to mention the presence of the alternate version.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B
Ride with the Devil appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though most of the movie looked quite good, some exceptions kept the transfer from greatness.
Most of those related to sharpness. The substantial majority of the flick demonstrated very good definition, a fact that made the occasional lapses more perplexing. I sensed that the smattering of soft images stemmed from the source photography, but for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with a logical reason why these semi-blurry bits should look that way; I didn’t discern any clear stylistic rationale for the iffy shots.
Still, those remained reasonably rare, so most of the movie offered more than acceptable delineation. I noticed no concerns with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes weren’t a factor. Source flaws stayed away from this clean presentation.
Colors favored the green look of the fields and forests in which most of Devil took place. This meant few other distinct hues – red appeared reserved for blood – but the hues were good given the stylistic choices. Blacks were fairly dark and deep but not tremendously so, and shadows could be a little dense. That did appear to connect to photographic choices, though; Lee preferred natural lighting wherever possible, and that meant less clarity in night scenes. These remained acceptable, though, and never became a substantial problem. Much of the film looked absolutely great, but the minor concerns left this as a “B” image.
As for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Devil, it also wound up in “B” territory, but that occurred mostly due to its general lack of ambition. War movies usually boast active soundfields, but Devil didn’t include enough battles for those elements to make a big impact. We got a handful of skirmishes, but most of the movie concentrated on chatty character scenes, so environmental material ruled the day.
When the battles did occur, they offered pretty good involvement. Gunfire was the sole focus, as these fights lacked cannons to add to the action. The sound of the weapons varied some, as we heard both pistols and rifles, but the effect on the soundscape remained the same. Shots emanated from all five speakers and created a nice sense of the sequences.
Audio quality was positive. Speech appeared natural and concise, without edginess or other issues. Music showed good vivacity and came across with positive range. Effects seemed accurate and full, with solid bass when appropriate. The relative lack of action meant the track rarely excelled, but it did well for the material.
This Criterion release packs a smattering of extras. We find two audio commentaries, the first of which comes from director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus. Both recorded separate running, screen-specific chats that got edited together. They discuss the source novel and its adaptation, story, script and character issues, cast and performances, sets and location, changes for the director’s cut, historical elements, cinematography, music, and a few other production areas.
While not the world’s liveliest commentary, this one does give us a good overview of the different topics. At the start, Schamus dominates, but this eventually changes and Lee becomes the more prominent participant. Both manage to provide quite a few nice thoughts, and I especially like the fact that Lee claims he cast Jewel because she had “period teeth”. This becomes a consistently useful piece.
For the second commentary, we hear from director of photography Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg. All three sit together for a running, screen-specific look at sets, location and production design, historical elements and attempts at accuracy, music and audio, cast and performances, cinematography, stunts, the director’s cut, the film’s reception and other production areas.
Early on, this commentary feels a bit tedious, as the participants veer toward narration mode. However, they quickly become more involved in the movie’s creation and get into a mix of interesting areas. A few moments repeat info from the prior track, but most of the material remains unique, so this works as a good commentary.
In addition to the commentaries, we locate an interview with actor Jeffrey Wright. During the 14-minute, 45-second piece, Wright discusses how he came onto the film, his character and performance, working with Lee and others, and some reflections on his experiences and the film. Wright throws out a smattering of interesting notes, but I wouldn’t call this an enthralling chat. Still, Wright provides enough useful material to make the clip worth a look.
Finally, the package presents a 32-page booklet. This production includes essays by critic Godfrey Cheshire and historian Edward E. Leslie. These are consistently informative, and this becomes yet another of Criterion’s excellent booklets.
Despite a number of intriguing elements, Ride with the Devil fails to turn into anything particularly dynamic or involving. It’s a character piece with less than enthralling participants and a war flick without many battles. It works just well enough to keep the viewer with it, but it never threatens to excel in any way. The Blu-ray provides generally good picture and audio along with supplements highlighted by two useful commentaries. Ang Lee fans will want to give the film a look, but they shouldn’t expect one of the director’s better efforts.
Viewer Film Ratings: 5 Stars
| Number of Votes: 9