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IN SHORT: Not a war flick. [Rated [R], 134 minutes]
Director Ang Lee's last two flicks, The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility popped us into the Wayback machine for 1970s Connecticut and 19th Century England. His latest, Ride With The Devil, again seeks to create an earlier time, the US Civil War. It's an interesting approach. Lee uses a story set on the Southern side and far from the organized army battles in the East. We see how the War was fought in the relatively wild territory of Missouri and Kansas, where militias and wild bands of irregulars battled, literally, neighbor versus neighbor.
Begin with young Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), born in Germany raised in the South. The German community is behind Lincoln, but Jake sides with his friends, including neighbor Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich). After a band of pro-Northern "Jayhawkers" attack the Chiles house and kill his father, Jack and Jake join the pro-South "Bushwhackers" and a guerilla war is on. Their unit includes southern gentleman George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and a soon to be maniacal murderer Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As their first winter settles in, Pitt goes off to fight elsewhere, George goes off to court a lady, and the remaining men wait it out in a dugout cave. A local widow, Sue Lee (Jewel) brings 'em food and adds a wee bit of sexual tension to the story.
Rather than an epic of bloody battles, Ride With The Devil is, essentially, a buddy story. With dialog scripted in the manner of Southern Gentleman of that period, you get a picture that Cranky sat through twice. Not because I was fanatically raving about it but because I know that Ang Lee is a pretty good film maker. I couldn't figure out why I felt so blasé about Ride With The Devil. My notes after that first screening, two months back:
Not enthralling as Sense and Sensibility, not as emotionally wrenching as The Ice Storm, Ride With The Devil is a decent story told slowly with more appeal to the guys than to the ladies (the pair in front of me called the flick "gaseous"). Jewel, in her first thespian gig is pretty good. Once you hit the fade before the end titles, you'll have about 45 seconds or so to scoot out of the theater if you don't particularly want to hear the song she's written for the film's soundtrack. Cranky doesn't care either way. I just thought some of you should be warned ('cuz the reviewers in front of me started groaning and clutching their heads. Some people . . .)
On second view, with every notion of how a "war movie" should look pushed to the side, Ride With The Devil came across as a beautifully acted, very well written story about friendship during war time. The dialog is so mannered and archaic that it is difficult to listen to. Eventually you get used to it but doing so may make you miss some of the very understated things that are going on. Jewel's debut as an actor is much better than good. There's a whole lot of unspoken communication going back and forth between Jewel and Maguire throughout the flick, all communicated by their eyes and all missed by me the first time through. Even when Lee kicks into war mode, the message he wants to put across is very understated.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Ride With The Devil, he would have paid...
Ride With The Devil still feels a lot longer than the two and a quarter hours that it runs. If I hadn't of second guessed myself after the first viewing, the rating would have been lower.
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