Ridin’s better than runnin’, right?
In 1861, two best buddies from the South, Jake and Jack (Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich), are forced to join up with the guerrillas in order to get revenge for the slayings of their families. At first, they seem to be really inspired to be rebellious and start killing whomever they think is on the other side and against them, however, they begin to think otherwise once they realize that they have a future ahead of themselves. For instance, Jack gets together with a widow (Jewel) who’s watching over them for short while, while Jake starts to think differently about the cause that these rebels are fighting for, and what it even matters in the end. Obviously not everybody thinks the same way these two folks do, so they land themselves in hot water, not knowing whether they’re going to die on the battlefield, or behind enemy lines.
Ride with the Devil is an interesting flick in that it starts out as being something very ordinary and conventional, yet, changes around halfway through. Something very tragic happens and rather than getting ourselves a slam-bang Western full of action, guns, broads, whiskey, saloons, and pianos, we get something of a down-to-earth, mellowed-out character-drama that’s concerned more with its acting, than its pure spectacle or anything like that. And coming from Ang Lee, you can’t totally expect much different. The guy has made a living by taking a simple premise, and somehow being able to turn it on its side, giving us something that we didn’t expect to see, or didn’t really want to.
Which normally works for Ang Lee, but is still a bit messy here in Ride with the Devil.
For instance, it mostly all comes down to its plot. At one point, the movie’s about these two buddies who go into the war, not knowing what to expect, and somehow get thrown into the middle of it all. Then at the next point, somehow, the movie becomes a racial-drama, showing us all sorts of hatred and remorse African Americans had to face before they were made free. At one point, the movie becomes something of a war epic that’s made to get us up in the air, with our feet giving out right from beneath us. But then, at the next point, it suddenly becomes something of a romantic-drama, mixed with little bits and pieces of comedy. Oh, and before I forget to mention it, the movie does seem like it’s trying to make a point about the rebels and they’re hypocritical way of going about their business in order to make a point, which was probably the most interesting point the movie had to make yet, sacrificed it for a rivalry-angle between two characters that comes out of nowhere, and yet, they continue to milk it for all that they got.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on here and Lee, with all of his best intentions, does what he can to make it interesting. And for the most part, he does; this harsh and unforgiving view of the Wild West, that also paints it as an unpredictable hellhole, where any wrong decision can have you shot dead in the dirt, is a refreshing one and shows that Lee never backs down from a challenge, whether visually or structurally. However, the movie does have so much going on, with so much to say and do, that it seems as if Lee himself is having a hard time keeping up with, or better yet, even track of where he’s going next.
Unfortunately, that also keeps the movie away from having the sort of emotional and powerful effect it should most definitely have.
But thankfully, his cast is so good that they really do help it out. Tobey Maguire fits perfectly well as the sweet and quiet Jake; Jewel is actually a nice fit as the fiery, yet somewhat seductive widow who Jake falls for and starts something of a relationship with; Skeet Ulrich is actually a lot of fun to watch as the brash and charming Jack, showing that there was more to him than just his boyish good-looks; Jeffrey Wright, in one of the performances that put him on the map, does a great job as Daniel Holt, a former slave dealing with racism in these terrible and violent times, sometimes, hardly even having to say something to get his point across; and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, despite playing what is, essentially, the conventional villain of the movie, does a good job with it, making us feel like he’s more tortured than just evil, as if the pains and terror of war may never leave him, no matter how many years go by, or how long he stays away from guns and murder.
There’s a whole lot more to this cast that really help Ride with the Devil, but it’s always Lee’s show, first and foremost.
Consensus: With so much going on, Ride with the Devil still works as an interesting and well-acted, if somewhat messy, Western epic.
7 / 10