Tuesday, July 20, 2010

#514: Ride with the Devil

(Ang Lee, 1999)

At once a difficult slog and an admirable, challenging look at the Civil War, Ang Lee's wholly ignored and largely forgotten Ride with the Devil is both certainly deserving of a second chance and, well, sometimes a little too much to bear. Roger Ebert gave the film two stars when it was released, but had little to say against the film except the fact that, um, it's boring. And yeah, this isn't the most eventful movie I've ever seen. There are moments of pure inspiration, just as there are moments that challenge the perceived notion of the war in a modern day America that was inarguably shaped by its unfolding. But there is a lot of work to get through to reach these moments. Most people won't make it.

My favorite moment comes halfway-ish through the movie. Sitting in a Confederate house, Maguire and Ulrich listen to the man of the house explain why he knows the south is going to lose the war. In Lawrence, Kansas, he explains, the first thing they built - before they built anything else - was the schoolhouse, and every child in the town could come learn there. His point wasn't that Unionists were more educated, but that they believe everyone should think and live like they do. In the south, they don't care what other people do. They just look out for themselves. This is an eternal truth, not just about North and South, but about white and black, Christian and Jew, American and (modern) European. It's a powerful statement.

Intellectually, I think Ride with the Devil is a modern masterpiece. The direction, score, editing, and especially the cinematography are all artful and memorable. The acting is top-rate, though (as always) I could have used a little less Tobey Maguire. The film gives us a different look at a well-worn subject, and does so in a challenging and intelligent way. And yet, it's so emotionless as to almost be a history book instead of a story. The ideas and execution behind the events are much more effective than the events themselves, which lack visceral impact (the obvious exception to this is the harrowing Lawrence Massacre, though again this is more about execution than emotion -  no pun intended). Ride with the Devil is a worthwhile film, one that deserves to be reevaluated. But this is not a case where it is shocking, or even really surprising, that a film was overlooked in its initial run. Unlike Lee's best films - Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Ride with the Devil is more about its contextual and technical accomplishments in relation to its genre than an emotional connection to its genre's touchstones (though I haven't seen The Hulk, the general consensus on the film seems to be the same). It makes for a challenging viewing for most, if a worthy one for some.

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