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Film: The Big Picture: Too much sympathy for the devil?

Ride With The Devil (15) Director: Ang Lee Starring: Tobey Maguire Skeet Ulrich 140 Mins
The Taiwan-born director Ang Lee can't be faulted for ambition. Following his trilogy of domestic comedy dramas (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) he went on to explore Regency England in Sense and Sensibility and Watergate-era US in The Ice Storm. Different as they are in period and setting, his films share common cause in their delicate notation of social codes and the underlying passions those codes are intended to check. Never likely to cover the same ground twice, Lee and his screenwriter, James Schamus, have taken on the weighty and still emotionally fraught subject of the American Civil War.

Ride With The Devil is based upon a novel by Daniel Woodrell and bears the hallmarks of epic. It's a grand panorama of love and war set on the Kansas-Missouri border, yet its heroes are not at all the traditional embodiments of courage and nobility one might expect. Being a director who likes to stand at an angle to his subjects, Lee has chosen a story about bushwhackers, a renegade band of paramilitaries who fought for the Confederate cause. They wore their hair long, favoured dandyish duds and murdered with a savagery remarkable even in those unforgiving years.

The film's focus is the coming-of-age of Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), who join up with the bushwhackers after their lives are torn apart by Union forces. Jake, a mild-mannered young fellow, is doubly an outsider, being born to a farmer of German stock and the only man among these marauders who can read and write. His companions, a motley bunch, include George Clyde (Simon Baker) and the black slave he freed, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), nominal leader Black John (James Caviezel) and a mad-dog gunman named Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The early stages of the film are occupied with swift and unheroic blasts of violence.

More pertinently, it's a war between neighbours, which Lee conveys with a fine economy of touch and poignancy of detail. When Jake and Jack return to camp after their latest scrape they notice a group of chained Union prisoners, one of whom calls out to Jake - they knew each other as boys. Jake secures the man's release, on the condition that he takes a message to his superiors offering an exchange of men. The prisoner is sent on his way, and we think no more of him until a report one day reaches Jake that the freed soldiers went back to their town and slew Jake's father in the street. It's one of the great moments in Tobey Maguire's performance, reacting to this devastating news with a kind of dazed disbelief: "I set him free," Jake says wonderingly to his fellows. "You saw me do it". He also uses his soft voice to bring out Jake's musing philosophical bent; after he gets his little finger shot off in an ambush, he explains to Jack how there's advantage in the loss - should he ever die and rot on some battlefield, his family will be able to identify him by his missing pinky. That's a hell of a consolation.

Lee paces his film very deliberately, alternating flurries of bloodiness with passages of calm. The middle section takes a long breather to concentrate upon the trio of Jake, Jack and Holt as they hole up in a hillside dugout for the winter, visited - perhaps a little too prettily - by a war widow, Sue Lee (played by Jewel, singer-songwriter du jour). "Aren't you bushwhackers the gentlemen?" she teases them as they tip their hats and observe the proprieties even in the cramped confines of their bolt-hole. At times the humorous, mercurial tone recalls something of Robert Benton's Bad Company, another tale of Civil War vagabonds on the run. They share a visual style to boot, inky blue-black for the night scenes with an austere medley of greens and browns during daylight - it's a look which a friend of mine calls the "suede Western" (Walter Hill's The Long Riders is another example) and it's usually soundtracked, as here by a scratchy fiddle'n'banjo combination.

Yet Ride With The Devil also manages to fill the screen, massively, sweeping over hill and dale as mounted soldiers thunder towards battle. The film's big set-piece - the sacking of the town of Lawrence, Kansas - is recreated from an actual atrocity of August 1863 when more than 180 men and boys were slaughtered. It's the moment Jake and Holt realise both the absolute wantonness of their comrades and the uselessness of their struggle. Holt's position could hardly be more anomalous - a black man fighting on the South's behalf - yet allegiances have been so confounded by the war that the perversity of it can be forgotten. We should have twigged long before now that Jake wasn't altogether easy about his loyalty to the cause. Perhaps the turning point for him was watching a card game in which players who'd run out of money began betting with battlefield scalps.

For all the flashes of horror, the film maintains a decorous and high- minded tone that may finally tell against it. Jake's showdown with his sworn enemy promises a cathartic, crowd-pleasing act of vengeance, which Lee unexpectedly draws back from. While admiring the restraint, you also have to take into account the fact we've waited just under two hours and 20 minutes for this elegant diminuendo. The narrative has slowed right down at the stage where most films would break into a gallop. Personally, I think it's a rather beautiful ending to a complex and engrossing movie, but I've a feeling that satisfaction with it will not be universal.