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When Johnny Doesn't Come Marching Home
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 1999


    'Ride With the Devil' A band of southern renegades struggles to avoid capture in "Ride With the Devil." (Universal)
The Taiwanese director Ang Lee once made a film called "Eat Drink Man Woman"; clearly, it focused on civilized pleasures. Now he's made a film that focuses on uncivilized pleasures; it could be called "Ride Shoot Hide Survive."

You have to admire his audacity. First, "Ride With the Devil" turns out to be a western. Second, it's set during the Civil War. Third, it's set among Confederate sympathizers. Fourth, they ride with the infamous William C. Quantrill.

That's right: It's about the wrong men on the wrong side of the wrong campaign in the wrong war. Its climax even takes place at the Civil War's most famous atrocity, Quantrill's bloody raid on Lawrence, Kan., in 1863. On top of that: no stars.

With all that wrong, what's left to go right? Fortunately, only the movie. In its quiet way, "Ride With the Devil" is terrific.

It turns on the adventures of Jake "Dutchy" Roedel (Tobey Maguire), called a Netherlander by the traditions of the rural South because he's really a German, and his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), a boulevardier type who looks dashing in a goatee and a flowing coat, with Hamlet's hair ruffling behind him in the breeze. They are young'uns when the guns begin to speak at Fort Sumter, and they are caught in the most dreadful of places, the middle of the dark and bloody ground of Missouri, where house by house and town by town, folks vary considerably in their attitude toward the peculiar institution, slavery.

Such unstable politics leads inevitably to what consumes Jake and Jack Bull: the meanest kind of partisan guerrilla war, with ambush and counter-ambush far from the lines of regular infantry clashing in the wide-open East. Instead, this brutal little affray is fought among hollows and hills, forest creek beds and caves. It's more like a rat hunt than a battle. When the cruel war is finally over, only one survives, and by then, 15 men killed and three wounds from now, he's a very old'un with empty eyes and thin cheeks and a limp – at 19.

In its way, the movie recalls the best of the old, big stories. I thought not only of the great westerns of the '40s and '50s (like "Dark Command" and "The Searchers"), but also of that particular brand of "big" novel now vanished, such as Robert Lewis Taylor's "The Travels of Jamie McPheeters," which took the whole frontier for its canvas. So it is with "Ride With the Devil," which runs from 1861 to 1865, watches the impact of the war on the families of a region, watches the boys grow--some into men and fathers, some into corpses and nihilists – watches the turning of the soil, the comings and goings of armies, and the most terrifying kind of close-in gunplay, with big, pulsing holes blown into human beings for a variety of reasons ranging from the political to the nonsensical.

Yet at the same time, the movie is a kind of anti-epic. As "big" as it is, it never yields its hold on the small and immediate. We may glimpse Quantrill in the decayed dress gray of the old Confederacy, his plume all funky like a foxtail in the rain, his charisma shrunk to screwball-eyed vengeance, and we may watch the massacre at Lawrence from the old MGM vantage point of a camera placed exactly where God's eye would be, but the focus of the film remains intimate. It never veers from Jake and Jack Bull, their friend Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who happens to be black, and the girl who comes between them, Sue Lee (the pop singer Jewel in another modulated, egoless performance).

Moreover, its view of the land is a bushwhacker's. The land is mostly forest, ingrown and dank; it's a paranoid's universe where fights break out and finish in a second. (Visually, it bears a resemblance to Walter Hill's "The Long Riders," which looked at that same embittered generation of Confederate Missouri boys a decade later, when they had evolved into America's leading desperado clan.)

For the longest time, we're stuck in a cabin hewn out of the ground in a parcel of woods as the boys hide and mend; for another, we rusticate on a farm bounded by fields that must be tilled by the hard labor of man and beast. Only once does Lee show us the land as John Ford might have, burgeoning, splurging to forever, lit by sunlight and broken up by mesa. That's at the end, when the cruel war is over and the land has once again become a field of possibility, not a killing ground.

The performances are measured, even elegant. The language, presumably adapted by scenarist James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell's novel "Woe to Live On," has that 19th-century filigree to it, a language of nuance and ritual, slow to move yet icy in its precision. You suspect that all these dangerous boys in their capes and high boots and shiny Colt Dragoon pistols must have studied Latin under stern tutelage.

The film is picaresque rather than plot-driven. Its course is the war, and whole chunks of time are dispensed with by a subtitle like "One Year Later." And the movie gives credit to the complexity of motive. Its subtext is growth, and it watches and charts as Jake and Jack Bull are changed by their experience. Neither really loves the South; neither holds a slave. But they love each other, they love their region, they love its traditions, and so they become Confederate guerrillas without "Dixie" having been whistled once. But the war soon enough becomes mere pretext for slaughter, and acts of mercy redound with horror. It's a war without honor or quarter, and each boy struggles to hold on to his humanity.

Lee loves the genre and its pleasures, and, as anti-romantic as the film's tone is, he still gives you a bucketful of the old glories of the western. If your heart is set to beating fast by strong young men on stronger-still horses that eat up the landscape, if the young men settle all debts by going to their Colts at the drop of a feather and you know it's bad but it's still thrilling, then the movie will let you love them once again. Yet unlike older westerns that celebrated such a quick-draw code of honor without irony or wisdom but just as something cool, this one lets you see the weight of accumulated killings.

It plays with melodrama. You feel the old formula being deployed, as cause for retribution is set up and the last stalk begins. But Lee is too clever to fall for this. By the end, these hard-gun boys are too exhausted to fight it out for nothing. They've seen too much killing. They've learned the lesson the hard way: Live and let live.

Ride With the Devil (138 minutes) is rated R for extreme violence and gore, including the amputation of a man's arms by the primitive means of 1863.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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