[Screen It]

(1999) (Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich) (R)

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Drama: Pro-Confederate young men become guerilla fighters against Union forces in the Midwest during the Civil War.
Itís 1862 and the pro-Confederate Bushwhackers are engaging in guerilla warfare along the Kansas/Missouri border against Union forces. Jack Bull Chiles (SKEET ULRICH) and Jake Roedel (TOBEY MAGUIRE) are childhood friends who support the Bushwhackers, despite Jake being a German immigrant whose father is decidedly pro-Union.

Nonetheless, after Jayhawkers murder Chilesí father, the two young men join a band of such guerilla fighters. Led by Black John (JAMES CAVIEZEL), Roedel and Chiles, along with fellow Bushwhackers Pitt Mackeson (JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS), Turner Rawls (MATTHEW FABER), George Clyde (SIMON BAKER) and his former slave, Daniel Holt (JEFFREY WRIGHT), set out to disrupt the Union activities and consequently get into several lethal encounters with them.

As winter sets in, the Bushwhackers disband into smaller groups, with Roedel, Chiles, George and Holt setting up a primitive camp on the outskirts of property owned by Mr. Evans (ZACH GRENIER). There, and only when there are no signs of feds in the area, does Brownís widowed daughter-in-law, Sue Lee Shelley (JEWEL), bring food to the men. While George goes off to stay with a lady friend of his, Chiles and Sue Lee begin a brief romance.

Yet with the arrival of spring and more fighting that whittles down their numbers, the Bushwhackers continue on their quest to insure the freedom of their way of life. After both Roedel and Holtís subsequent injuries lay them up at the home of Orton Brown (TOM WILKINSON), the men must determine their stake in the war while dealing not only with Sue Lee whom they earlier dropped off there, but as well as with Mackeson who has a personal vendetta against Roedel for earlier preventing more war-related atrocities.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When one thinks of the American Civil War that divided and ravaged the U.S. during the 1860s, places such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Atlanta and Richmond come to mind as locations that shaped the course of the war and its outcome. Most every movie or miniseries focusing on the conflict included such locales or scenes of plantation life in the South contrasting with the urban lifestyle of the North.

Few set their battles or other activities in places such as Missouri and Kansas, despite the fact that fighting actually took place there and that pro-Union Kansas suffered the greatest number of fatal casualties of any "northern" state during that conflict.

For modern audiences, however, thoughts of the Civil War as portrayed on the big screen usually evoke memories of the beginning of "Dances With Wolves," the classic "Gone With The Wind" and what may be the best film ever made on the subject, "Glory." On the flip side, one doesn't necessarily think of films such as "The Ice Storm" or "Sense and Sensibility."

Yet that's the recent pedigree of Ang Lee, the director of this week's release of "Ride With The Devil," who, as in his previous films, focuses the majority of his attention on characters and their interaction with each other. None of that's meant as a put-down or a barbed criticism, and directors are obviously free to choose whatever material they wish to bring to the silver screen. It's just that audiences expecting a "typical" Civil War movie will be in for a bit of a surprise considering the film's setting and Lee's approach at telling the story.

Working from a script by screenwriter James Schamus ("The Ice Storm," "Eat Drink Man Woman") that's based on Daniel Woodrell's 1987 novel "Woe To Live On," the film is a wonderfully shot but only moderately intriguing look at several young men's involvement with this war. Despite the built-in historical conflict, an opening on-screen passage that states that nothing was worse in that war then being stuck in the middle, and a decent array of volatile characters, the film lacks any real emotional or visceral fireworks.

Sure, there are enough battle scenes and killings to satiate those who come to this sort of movie for just that, but even those moments - except for a late in the game battle -- are surprisingly flat and never involve the viewer on any conscious or subconscious level.

The film also never satisfactorily plays off the notion that in such a conflict between friends and neighbors who don't have the benefit of identifying uniforms, one would never be sure who was an ally or an enemy, thus making for some tense encounters with anyone, friend or stranger. Unfortunately, and despite a brief scene where the Bushwhackers run into an old friend who turns out to be pro-Union, the filmmakers never bother to play with that notion that clearly would have added a compelling but near perverse complication to the overall madness of the proceedings.

Of course, and smartly enacted by Lee and company, the film's "heroes" aren't necessarily the good guys just as their opponents aren't necessarily the villains. This sort of grayness is always a good thing for any film, as it usually creates far more interesting characters and situations than the standard black and white approach. It also typically involves the viewer to a greater extent since he or she isn't sure what to expect from such characters, especially given the volatility of this setting.

While Lee plays with that last notion a bit, it's another area where I felt that expectations were let down. Nebulous war movies certainly aren't a novel thing, but I was expecting something a bit beyond the standard gray issue. As a result, it seems that such an omission and the rather lackadaisical approach at telling and staging the story unnecessarily steals a great deal of its thunder.

Where the film works quite well - beyond the excellent technical matters - is in its portrayal of its characters as well as the performances of those who inhabit them. That said, some may have a bit of a problem with Tobey Maguire ("The Cider House Rules," "Pleasantville") and his acting style for this sort of picture.

Much like the initial sight of Matthew Broderick in "Glory," viewers may think that some miscasting has taken place in that Maguire is too "modern" and young looking for the role. Yet, the age issue is appropriate since most of those in the Civil War were only young men, and much like Broderick's performance in that other film, Maguire's in this one progressively grows on you.

The rest of the performances are all decent. Skeet Ulrich ("Chill Factor," "The Newton Boys"), while not sticking around for the entire show, is good as the partially loose cannon and Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("The Loss of Sexual Innocence," "The Governess") is appropriately menacing as the film's only truly defined villain.

Singer turned actress Jewel (who makes her feature film debut) actually does a god job despite not having to push her fledgling thespian skills too far (and considering the likely built-in displeasure of some viewers and critics at seeing yet another singer putting on her acting boots). As is the case with Maguire, by the time the film draws to a close you'll have easily accepted her performance.

The best performance, however, belongs to Jeffrey Wright ("Celebrity," "Basquiat") as the former slave who still fights alongside his previous owner. Despite his understated but quite effective portrayal of his character, however, the filmmakers don't fully exploit the interesting conflict of him fighting for a system that wishes to continue enslaving his people.

The same holds true for most of the film that doesn't effectively capture or exude the effects of the war on the country, family members or former friends involved with it. While that has been explored ad infinitum in countless other films, its absence here keeps the film grounded and the viewer, for the most part, unnecessarily detached from the proceedings. Despite decent performances, great technical work and the built-in and then later set-up conflict, in the end the film never becomes anything more than moderately interesting. As such, we give "Ride With the Devil" only a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 13, 1999 / Posted December 17, 1999

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