The Civil War has been treated so many ways in books and films and on television that it’s hard to imagine that you could see it in any way that seems remotely “new.” You can’t help but feel haunted by those familiar representations of the War Between the States (or simply, The War, as I’ve heard it called in the American South), those that deal with the conflicts between brothers (say, in Ken Burns’ celebrated PBS miniseries), the nobility of Abe Lincoln, the boldness of Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee, the courage under fire by any number of unknowns (for example, Ted Turner’s Gettysburg), the historical significance of actions by John Brown or Crispus Attucks, or the blood spilled on too many battlefields, the pain suffered by any number of mothers and sweethearts left behind.
Indeed, the events seem well-rehearsed and infinitely fictionalized. And yet, Ride With the Devil dares to bring yet another version. Directed by Ang Lee and written by Lee and his usual collaborator James Schamus (who adapted Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, a novel inspired, says the author, by today’s warfare in the Balkans), the film is rather surprising, and not only because it stars Jewel as a Southern widow. Telling stories that don’t usually get told, Ride With the Devil focuses on some of the War’s more disgraceful and outrageous aspects, both personal and public. This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t privilege the occasional graces of its Southern-inclined protagonists namely, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) but it likewise doesn’t shy away from the ways that the War inspired self-serving definitions of loyalty, nationalism, and individualism, or specious claims for democracy and states’ rights.
Most reviews of Ride With the Devil have noted for good or ill the romantic pairing of Jack and Jake, best friends in rural Missouri (near Kansas) in 1860, who, when the War begins, join the bushwhackers, essentially a gang of Southern pillagers and raiders (and occasionally, rapists). Jake is the son of a German immigrant and Union supporter, who pointedly avoids going to the Southern gentlemen’s parties Jake attends, where folks deride “that black Republican Abe Lincoln.” though he admires his father, Jake sees himself as a Southerner (perhaps especially when his so-called friends call him out for not being one) and decides to follow his aristocratic buddy Jack into what amounts to guerilla warfare, after the latter’s father is killed by some Kansas-based, Union-favoring raiders called “jayhawkers.” The film thus presents the War as less principled than it is vengeful and basically adolescent: the boys and they are pointedly boys, immature and afraid and often confused are fighting because they’re pissed off that their properties, names, and birthrights seem to be at stake.
While Jack and Jake’s difficult but vital friendship takes up most of the film’s running time, Holt’s story is easily its most compelling. In part this occurs because Wright (who made the otherwise unconscionably myopic Basquiat watchable) gives another performance of almost alarming subtlety and depth. But you’re also drawn to Holt because of his impossibly complex circumstances. The film never lets you forget that his very existence poses the question that his compatriots never have to ask: what birthright or name is worth defending by such viciousness? A former slave whose freedom has been purchased by his childhood friend George Clyde (Simon Baker), Holt has decided, much like Jake, to fight for the Confederacy because of a sworn loyalty to his friend.
With no other reasons driving him certainly no devotion to the ostensible Cause Holt is constantly challenged by his fellow Southern soldiers. At best they call him “George’s nigger”; at worst they assume they can kill or abuse him, by definition. Holt’s dilemma expands and contorts daily, until it climaxes with George’s death. Suddenly, Holt must figure out what he’s really doing there, shooting at people who ostensibly want his human rights secured. That the Northerners were often inconsistent on this point is not the film’s immediate concern, but Holt’s relentless sense of desperation and dislocation surely is.
Though Holt’s situation is existential, it’s resolutely material. And the film, when it’s not distracted by Jake’s amorous longings for Jack and then for Jack’s sweetheart Sue Lee (Jewel) attends to Holt in serious and intriguing ways. Incredibly, Ride With the Devil allows Holt and Jake’s faces (rather than more traditional vehicles, like dialogue or voice-over explication) to communicate the war’s awful distresses. Almost like the repeated images of icicles in The Ice Storm, Holt’s unbelieving and sad eyes tell you most everything you need to know about the film’s themes. In Holt’s case, his eyes reflect the moral and spiritual paucity of those characters who never grasp that he’s not property.
As Holt and Jake become friends (both left stranded without their best friends, who are killed and/or distracted), it becomes clear to Jake that his initial concerns with conforming to ideals of Southern masculinity are trivial. More important are his emerging efforts to understand what it means to be human, that is, generous and forgiving, vulnerable and accountable. The film itself only seems able to acknowledge the acute significance of this friendship when it concludes with their parting (there’s nothing more interesting to consider in the narrative). Before then, however, it spends too much time watching Jake discover his sexuality and self-worth (as these are inevitably connected) amid the perpetual lunacy of the War. When he loses his finger in one shootout, he considers it a sign of his uniqueness, assuring Jack afterwards, “It makes me notable by the loss.”
Such perverse self-conception and rationales are, of course, what permit wars to go on. Ride With the Devil offers glimpses of the absurdity. The chaos is well captured in cinematography by the brilliant Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lee’s The Ice Storm). Whether you’re looking at riotous battlefields or burning townscapes, you’re left feeling a little dizzied, not so much by the commotion (combat scenes full of hard-to-read body parts close-ups resembling Saving Private Ryan‘s will never be so stunning again) as by what feels like an incomprehensible contradiction between weight and lightness.
The camera pans slowly over these violences as well as moments of serenity the boys exhausted, resting by campfires, or wounded, seeking refuge at Rebel-friendly homes as if their surfaces are all you might be able to fathom, surfaces at once too heavy and too ethereal. For all the prodigious pain you’re asked to witness, the imagery remains strangely distanced, flitting and fragile instead of in-your-face ugly. And yet, the action revealed is tenaciously ugly, as when Jake and Jack take part in the ambush of a couple’s roadside vending stand, because they’ve catered to the Northern Aggressors, or in the infamous Lawrence, Kansas, massacre (where bushwhackers slaughtered some 180 townspeople).
Such chaos is perhaps best embodied by the character who most hates Jake and Holt, a snivelly cur of a villain named, appropriately, Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, last seen slithering in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine). Like Jack, Jake, Holt, and George, Pitt’s a member of the “Missouri Irregulars,” Black John’s (James Caviezel) bushwhacking squad. Unlike them, he is openly hellbent on maiming and murdering anyone who appears to cross him. The others, of course, are also tending to mayhem, but they tell themselves they’re adhering to a moral code. Lee’s movie, however, makes it increasingly clear that this is at best a story they tell themselves to stay sane amid the brutality they face and enact each day. It’s to the credit of Ride With the Devil that it shows this much.