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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...