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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game